Ukraine hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kyiv in early February for a visit that underscored the deepening strategic partnership between the Black Sea nations.
Erdogan’s stay in the Ukrainian capital proved highly productive, with officials from both countries signing a series of bilateral documents, including a long-awaited free trade deal and a headline-grabbing defense sector deal. newspapers paving the way for the joint production of the highly rated Turkish army. drones in Ukraine.
The new free trade agreement between Turkey and Ukraine had been under negotiation for several years. Finally signed, it should now give new impetus to what is already a growing economic partnership.
Turkey has become one of Ukraine’s main trading partners over the past decade, with two-way trade growing nearly 50% in the first nine months of 2021 to $5 billion. The Turkish and Ukrainian presidents have each expressed hope that with the added benefits of the new free trade agreement, annual bilateral trade volumes will increase to over $10 billion in the next few years.
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The strengthening of relations between Ukraine and Turkey goes far beyond economic cooperation. Ties have become more strategically important for both countries since 2014 and the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine, with Kyiv and Ankara strengthening cooperation in the defense sector and Turkey playing a leading role in Ukrainian diplomatic initiatives such as the Crimean Platform Summit in August 2021.
The Russian occupation of Crimea provoked a particularly strong reaction from Turkey due to the country’s long historical association with the Ukrainian peninsula, which was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Turkey today is also home to a multi-million strong community of Crimean Tatars. This allowed Ukrainian and Turkish leaders to find common ground in speaking out against widespread human rights abuses against the Crimean Tatar population in Russian-occupied Crimea.
At the same time, Turkey has sought to balance its support for Ukrainian territorial integrity with the need to avoid alienating Russia. During his recent visit to Kyiv, Erdogan echoed popular Kremlin talking points in reiterating the importance of the 2015 Minsk agreements, while offering to mediate and host a new round of peace talks. peace between Russia and Ukraine.
Erdogan is believed to have a complex but constructive personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which reflects the strong ties and commonalities between their two countries. Turkey relies heavily on Russian gas for its energy needs, while Russians regularly rank first among customers of Turkey’s economically important tourism industry.
Turkey and Russia are also geopolitical rivals who have often found themselves on opposite sides in recent years in conflict zones ranging from Syria and Libya to the southern Caucasus. Some observers believe Ukraine now has the potential to become the most bitterly contested battleground so far in the struggle between Moscow and Ankara for regional influence.
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The defense sector cooperation agreement signed by Turkey and Ukraine in early February is the latest step in an escalating security partnership. Since 2014, Turkish defense companies have started to play an increasingly important role in the modernization of the Ukrainian army, while Ukraine has provided Turkish partners with access to its considerable know-how in the sector. defence, including the country’s sophisticated aircraft industry.
By far the most eye-catching aspect of this cooperation was Ukraine’s acquisition of up to 20 of Turkey’s wanted Bayraktar TB2 combat drones. When Kyiv first deployed one of its Turkish drones in October 2021 to destroy an artillery position in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, the incident was widely reported in international media as a historic event and a potential “game changer” in the simmering conflict.
Ukraine’s successful combat use of its Turkish drones has prompted a chorus of protests from Moscow as well as Russian accusations that the presence of these unmanned aerial vehicles risked destabilizing the region. The incident was later cited as one possible factor in Putin’s current troop buildup on the Ukrainian border.
With many more Turkish drones set to be built at a new Ukrainian production facility, it looks like the Kremlin will have to get used to the idea of Ukraine’s improved aerial capabilities. Speaking following the recent signing ceremony in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the agreement to start manufacturing drones in Ukraine. “It’s about new technologies, new workplaces and an increase in Ukraine’s ability to defend itself,” he commented.
Turkey’s economic and energy ties with Russia mean there are limits to what Ankara can go to in its support of Kyiv. Nevertheless, the budding relationship between Turkey and Ukraine is an important factor shaping the rapidly changing geopolitical balance in the wider Black Sea region.
Christopher Isajiw is an international relations commentator and business development consultant to private, governmental and non-governmental organizations.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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