Alwaght- As two key Black Sea actors and candidates for European Union accession, Turkey and Ukraine have taken serious steps to deepen their relationship and expand their cooperation in the past years and specifically in the recent months. Most important sign to this willingness was the meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Ukrainian counterpart Vladimir Zelensky on October 16. The point about Zelensky’s visit to Turkey is that a couple of days earlier Russia, during Karabakh crisis talks, had not shown a happy face to Turkey and the thus the meeting bears all hallmarks of a direct message to the Russians.
Now their ties are even on the track for deeper levels. Supporting this claim is a trip to Turkey of a high-ranking Ukrainian delegation headed by Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on November 30 with expansion of bilateral ties being at issue. Definitely, Ankara and Kiev have a complex level of relations on a string of cases like Red Sea, EU membership, NATO cooperation, political and military partnership, and even the Crimea Peninsula.
Here a question presents itself: What do the two countries pursue by boosting their bilateral cooperation especially in the recent months? Their intention seems to have political and economic roots.
Deepening military and political coordination: a multi-level area of cooperation
Certainly, the political and military areas have been the main pushing force behind closeness of the two countries. In this relation, some points are mentionable:
1- Concentrating on military cooperation and arms purchases. Their marked area of cooperation in the past few years has been military and arms. In recent years, Ukraine has been eager to buy weapons from Turkey. The most highlighted area of joint work is the drones. Last year, Ukraine bought 6 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones. Vadym Nozdria of Ukraine Defense Industry Company in October 2019 had said that Ukraine is interested in procuring 48 TB2 drones to have the largest fleet of this drone outside Turkey.
Development of Bayraktar model is originally an outcome of expanded defense relations with Ukraine. The newest Turkish assault drone, dubbed Akinci, is powered by Ukraine-supplied turbofan engines. Bayraktar Group is in a joint venture with a Ukrainian firm to produce new turboprop and turbofan engines and a missile system dubbed “Red Sea Shield.” Ukraine’s Defense Review magazine reported recently that the two countries are discussing production of new combat drones.
In a recent sign of deepening defense ties, the Ukrainian Chief of General Staff General Ruslan Khomchak said that his country will buy 5 more Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey. Along with the first 6 drones bought last year, Ukraine was supplied with 3 ground control stations.
2- Countering Moscow, a reason for deeper political cooperation. Turkey and Ukraine boosted their political ties in the recent years on a gradual base. The starting point was countering Russia as a common rival in annexation of Crimea Peninsula in 2014. Turkey declined to recognize Crimea as a Russian territory and voiced support to Tatars, who are of Turkish roots, in the enclave. In October 2017, Erdogan himself took actions to release two of Tatar leaders. Talks to Moscow concluded in their release.
In the recent Karabakh crisis, in which Turkey and Russia backed the opposite sides, Ukraine openly expressed support to the Turkish position. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba held that any frozen and unresolved dispute will reignite and that Kiev backs Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in war against Armenia.
Over the past years, Turkey kept its support for Tatars of Crimea in the face of Moscow. During Zelensky’s visit in October, the Turkish presidential spokesman and advisor Ibrahim Kalin took a photo with Mustafa Abduldzhemil Jemilev, the former Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. Publishing the photo and painting Jemilev as a hero, Kalin seemed to have sent a clear message to Moscow.
“Beside the leader of legendary leader of the Crimean Tatar struggle Mustafa Abduldzhemil Jemilev… Turkey will always stand by the Tatars of Crimeac,” the caption of the photo read.
But beyond Russia, the two countries have stepped up their cooperation on accession to EU, NATO partnership, and the politics of the Red Sea. Remarks by Kuleba may well demonstrate the levels of political ties between the two. He said: “We are grateful to Turkey for consistently and firmly supporting territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and also the willingness of President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to engage with the Ukrainian president on resolving issues related to this situation, to this conflict, in particular when it comes to the destiny of Crimean Tatars living under the Russian occupation in Crimea.”
Economy provides one of the main motivations for the two countries to engage in a close relationship. It should be taken into account that the geo-economic position of Turkey and Ukraine, mainly their location along the Red Sea, provides for bigger commercial, tourist, and energy transport ties. A look at the Red Sea map as well as the marine and railway transit basis makes clear that Ukraine, as the hub of the global mining industry with a super fertile gaming soil, is of significance for Turkey. What adds to this importance is the position of Crimea and its Tatar People who account for 12 percent of the population there.
Actually, Ukraine is the main bridge of the Russian energy transfer to Europe, making Russia an inevitable key trade partner of Ukraine. In recent years, Ukraine made considerable advances exporting cooking oil, crops, electronic devices, steel, and ores. Turkish private sector companies in recent years managed to complete 128 projects in Ukraine worth of $7 billion. In November, Erdogan traveled to Kiev for signing an agreement with Zelensky to double the bilateral trade from the current $4.8 billion volume to $10 billion.
The key mission of visit to Turkey of the high-ranking Ukrainian delegation is facilitating the Turkish investment in the former Soviet republic. During the visit, the Ukrainian PM emphasized the need for the two sides to work on a free trade agreement.
The important point is that Ukraine wants to develop its economic cooperation to strategic levels.
“We have common understanding on all the cases on the agenda. We can unhesitantly describe the Republic of Turkey as our friend and life partner,” Shmyhal was quoted as saying.
Erdogan’s glance at scaling down tensions with NATO
Another driver for Erdogan to promote ties to Ukraine is his will to ditch a dominant atmosphere of tensions with NATO fellow members. The reality is that Erdogan is sure that Joe Biden’s approach on Turkey would be tougher than that of Donald Trump. Through bolstered cooperation with Ukraine, Turkey’s leader wants to let the West know that when it comes to Crimea in particular and relations with Russia in general Ankara walks on NATO-drawn lines and is not for confrontation of the Western military bloc.