Turkey: The Benefits of Bold Responses

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March 25, 2022: The Ukraine invasion has put Turkish leader Recep Erdogan in a bind. He had been playing Russia off against the U.S. and the EU (European Union) off against Russia. It was part of his “neo-Ottoman” policy – Turkey carving its own path, with Erdogan as the master politician and Turkey no longer defined as a loyal member of NATO. However, the Ukrainian invasion has ended the illusion of Erdogan following a separate path or “foreign policy independence”. Overt Russian aggression and targeting of Ukrainian cities made the choice obvious. Turkey called the invasion “unprovoked and unjustified” and finally “an unlawful act.” Language like that means Turkey is firmly aligned with NATO, and the Erdogan-Putin bromance is kaput. Still, Erdogan has tried to act as a mediator. Ukraine’s and Russia’s foreign minister have met in Turkey, though the talks did not produce a ceasefire. After one meeting failed, Erdogan sent his Foreign Minister to Moscow on March 15th. That meeting made no difference. As Ukraine burns, Turkey is mending fences. Israel is on the fence-mending agenda. In March Erdogan hosted the Israeli head-of-state in Turkey to discuss diplomatic normalization. Turkey has also opened new discussions with Greece aimed at ending maritime territorial disputes. It’s not quite rapprochement, but it’s very different from the tough talk Erdogan has favored for the last decade. Talking tough is one thing, actually shooting at a neighbor is something entirely different. Destroying a neighbor’s cities is very bad for business. (Austin Bay)

March 24, 2022: Two Turkish Air Force A-400 four-engine turboprop transports are still stranded in Ukraine, where they arrived a few hours before the Russian invasion began a month ago. The Turkish transports were stranded as were all other commercial aircraft or foreign military transports. Ukrainian air space will probably remain closed to non-combat aircraft as long as Russian forces are attacking Ukraine. The flight crews of the two transports were soon instructed to return to Turkey. The A-400s will be looked after by the Ukrainians, who are still receiving TB2 UAVs from Turkey, which now uses a Polish airport for these deliveries.

March 22, 2022: President Erdogan’s approval rating rose to 43.3 percent, after falling to a record low of 38.6 percent at the end of 2021 because of inflation, the declining value of lira, especially when converting it to dollars. Erdogan was also in trouble because of his disputes with NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine a month ago changed all that and Erdogan is making the most of it.

March 21, 2022: The government estimated that 50,000 Ukrainian refugees had entered Turkey. It expects that number to increase dramatically by the end of March. Turkey already hosts around 3.7 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Ironically, anti-war Russians have also fled to Turkey. The government said at least 14,000 Russians have entered Turkey since the end of February.

March 20, 2022: Turkey is scrambling to find another 200,000 tons of wheat. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted expected supplies of Ukrainian and Russian wheat. Turkey is a major importer of milling wheat that is processed into flour.

March 19, 2022: President Erdogan spoke on the phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who listed several demands Ukraine must meet. The demands include accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and recognizing the independence of the two Russian-backed “separatist republics” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine must also pledge to be neutral and withdraw its application to join NATO. Ukraine would have to agree to neutrality on “the Austrian model.” Putin also said Ukraine must “de-nazify” and also permit the wide use of the Russian language. According to Erdogan’s office, Putin said he would hold direct talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky if the territorial demands were met.

March 16, 2022: The American Secretary of State praised Turkey stressing its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Turkey has also provided direct humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

March 15, 2022: Armenia announced that it is prepared to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey and open its border with Turkey.

March 14, 2022: President Erdogan said he believes it is too early to discuss purchasing more weapons from Russia, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey acknowledged it had discussed buying more S-400 SAMs (surface to air missiles) from Russia. Erdogan said he is trying to maintain Turkey’s friendship with both Russia and Ukraine. At one time Turkey indicated it would support EU and NATO membership for Ukraine.

March 12, 2022: The Ukraine war has put Turkish UAV manufacturer Baykar in a bind. In November 2021 Baykar agreed to a contract with Ukraine’s Ivchenko-Progress company to build AI-322F Turbofan jet engines for its new VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) Kizilelma UAV, which is supposed to have its first flight in 2023 and become the successor to the TB2 as well as operate from the flight deck of Turkish amphibious ships. The ability of the Ukrainians to deliver the new engine on time is uncertain because of the Russian invasion but the Ukrainians have told Turkey that they consider this engine agreement a national priority but cannot predict what the Russians will do to hinder the project.

March 10, 2022: The Russian Foreign Minister visited Turkey to meet with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister in an effort to resolve their differences. The Turks used their good relations with both nations to arrange this.

March 9, 2022: The Philippines received the first two of six T-129 Turkish helicopter gunships. The air force was going to buy transport and attack helicopters from Russia but this deal was canceled in 2018 because of sanctions with the United States providing sixteen UH-60s transports and Turkey the six gunships.

March 5, 2022: Turkey and the U.S. agreed to create a new “mechanism of strategic dialogue” between the two countries, specifically focusing on economic and trade relations, stopping terrorism and military-defense industry cooperation.

March 3, 2022: Turkey declared that Turkey's UAV shipments to Ukraine are not military aid but are private commercial sales. Turkish officials said that Russia needs to understand that Turkey is not providing Ukraine with military aid. Before the Russian invasion on February 24th Ukraine had over twenty armed (with laser guided missiles) TB2 UAVs purchased from Turkey before the invasion. More were on order and some were delivered, via Poland, in early March. Initially Ukraine agreed to only use the TB2s for reconnaissance but that changed in eastern Ukraine even before the 2022 invasion.

The continuing inability of Russian troops to deal with the TB2 is another mystery. Russia has encountered hostile TB2s in Libya and Armenia. In Libya Turkish forces were backing one faction in 2020-21 while Russian forces were supporting another. The TB2s inflicted a lot of damage on the Libyan forces Russia supported. This included destroying the new mobile Pantsir anti-aircraft system Russia had brought to Libya to deal with UAVs like the TB2. In 2021 Russian supported Armenian forces who were defeated by Turkish supported Azerbaijani forces. Ukrainians assumed that by early 2022 Russia had finally responded to the TB2 threat. For reasons still unexplained, that was not the case.

One of the more embarrassing failures was the Russian inability to deal with the TB 2 armed UAVs in Ukraine purchased. When Russia found out that Ukraine had ordered and received more TB2s after the invasion began, they complained to Turkey that it was taking sides in the war. President Erdogan responded that the firm that developed and manufactured the TB2 was a private company and encouraged to sell as many TB2s as possible, especially to export customers. It was also known that the firm making the TB2 has Erdogan’s MIT-trained and entrepreneurial son-in-law as their technical director.

Ukraine used the TB2 as a mobile anti-vehicle weapon that could quickly reach a Russian supply convoy, especially one carrying fuel, and destroy a few vehicles with laser guided missiles and immobilize the convoy long enough for one of the ground teams to reach the location and finish the work. Russian drivers were smarter than their leaders and learned to abandon their vehicles and walk away before Ukrainian ground forces arrived. The TB2 was embarrassing for the Russians in other ways, as it demonstrated how Turkey could develop and produce effective combat UAVs before Russia could.

Four months before the invasion, Ukraine used one of its armed Turkish TB2 to destroy a Russian self-propelled howitzer in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Russian forces had used this howitzer to break the ceasefire by shelling a Ukrainian position, killing one soldier and wounding two others. This was the first combat use of the TB2 in eastern Ukraine where Russian soldiers and Russian-backed locals sought to take over and annex two Ukrainian provinces in 2014. Swift and unexpected Ukrainian resistance quickly halted the Russian advance and since 2015 there have been a series of ceasefires that are regularly broken, and then revived by the Russians. This practice continued after the invasion,

Ukraine received its first TB2s in 2019 and used them mainly for surveillance, obtaining a growing number of videos showing Russian forces violating the Donbas ceasefire. Ukraine was reluctant to use the TB2 laser guided missiles, as the Russians might interpret that as an escalation and try harder to shoot down the TB2s. Ukrainians soon discovered that the TB2s were indeed vulnerable to ground fire and anti-aircraft missiles, but not so vulnerable that the risks outweigh the benefits. That was the Turkish experience when they used the armed TB2s aggressively against irregulars in Syria, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, Armenia and Libya. That included destroying modern anti-aircraft systems designed to eliminate large UAVs like the TB2. The first use in Donbas was justified by the need to deal with a Russian violation of the ceasefire. The Russians declared the TB2 use an escalation (true) and unprovoked (false). To the Ukrainians that indicated the TB2 missile had the desired effect.

At the end of 2018 Ukraine spent $69 million on two Bayraker TB2 UAV systems. Each system contains six UAVs, three truck-mounted ground control systems, two remote video terminals, which troops can use and maintenance gear. The first system was delivered in 2019 and the other in 2020. By 2022 Ukraine had received over twenty TB2s and most were apparently still flying.

Ukraine was the second export customer for Bayraktar, as Qatar had earlier ordered one system. The primary customer is the Turkish military, which already has six systems and plans to buy 151 UAVs, mostly as systems but also spares for expected operational losses to accidents or enemy fire. Even before the 2021 use of an armed TB2 in Donbas, Ukraine had ordered 24 more TB2s for use by the army and navy.

Bayraktar is a 650 kg (1,433 pounds) aircraft with a 55 kg (110 pound) payload and an endurance of 24 hours. In 2016 Bayraktar TB2 was equipped to carry two 22.5 kg (50 pound) Turkish made Mam-L laser-guided missiles. With a range of 8 kilometers, the Mam-l weighs half as much as the American Hellfire and is light enough for Bayraktar TB2 to carry two of them. These are used regularly against PKK separatists in Turkey and Islamic terrorists and rebel groups in Syria. A successor, the TB3 is also under development. While it is also propeller driven, it will be capable of short-take-off and landing and operating from the new Turkish amphibious ships with flight decks.

March 2, 2022: President Erdogan called on Ukraine and Russia to stop fighting. He reiterated that Turkey does not oppose NATO enlargement – code words that Turkey would support Ukraine’s admission to NATO.

March 1, 2022: Turkey said it will close its Black Sea straits to warships as long as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. The closure is for all naval vessels but the obvious target is Russia. Turkey indicated it will limit the passage of some other Russian ships from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Turkey has now officially declared the Ukraine invasion to be a war. This decision means that Turkey could invoke Article 19 of the 1936 Montreux Convention. That article says Turkey can allow passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus to the warships of “belligerent parties” only if belligerent warships are returning to their home ports. Otherwise, Turkey can deny passage.

February 28, 2022: Turkey confirmed it will soon have four offshore drilling ships. The latest ship, the Cobalt Explorer, was built in South Korea. It can operate at an ocean depth of 3,600 meters. Turkey’s three operational drilling ships, the Fatih, Kanuni and Yavuz, are currently involved in exploratory drilling in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The ships have operated in the contested Mediterranean zone that is also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

In the northwest Syria (Idlib province) Turkish and Syrian Assad forces have the remaining rebels and their supporters trapped. Syria continues their campaign to liberate and take control of the rebel-held portions of the province. This is being done with a lot of material assistance from Russia in the form of airstrikes and resupply of artillery shells and rockets fired by the Syrians into Idlib. Taking Idlib has to be done with the cooperation of the Turks, who do not want the 30,000 or 40,000 armed rebels trapped in Idlib and parts of adjacent Aleppo province, along with over a million pro-rebel civilians, forcing their way into Turkey. Why risk death from Turkish border guards and defenses? Because if the Assads get control of Idlib and its current population, the justifiably feared Assad secret police will arrive and interrogate (torture) those with a record of rebel activity. In other pro-rebel areas where the Assads took control, the secret police did their work and a lot of local civilians disappeared. This is not an issue with the Arab League, Turkey, Russia or Iran because all use similar techniques. The Assads simply do it more often.

In northern Iraq (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) Turkish F-16 jets attacked several sites believed to be occupied by PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) gunmen. These attacks take place regularly, with PKK targets hit at least three times in the last week. Turkey also has ground troops on both sides of their Iraqi border and there are casualties every week as smugglers and PKK forces try to cross the border in either direction. Turkey announces all such operations, especially when it involves PKK forces. Iran threatens to carry out similar attacks and occasionally does so but never takes credit for them. These attacks are strictly for the benefit of Iran and, as is often the case, at the expense of Iraq.

February 24, 2022: Ukraine asked Turkey to stop Russian warships from entering the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits. Under the 1936 Montreux Treaty Turkey controls both the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus straits. The treaty limits the entrance of naval vessels belonging to nations that do not have a Black Sea coast. It also gives Turkey the right to stop warships in times of war. Ukraine said that blocking Russian naval vessels was a necessary sanction. The Turkish government indicated it will discuss the request.

February 23, 2022: President Erdogan told Russian leader Putin that Turkey does not recognize Russia’s encroachment on Ukrainian territory. He was reacting to Russia’s declaration that separatist enclaves in the Donbas region are independent nations.

February 22, 2022: The government advised all Turkish citizens in eastern Ukraine to leave the region due to the Russian invasion.

Turkey’s immigration authority has decided to close 16 provinces to “newly arriving” foreign residents. New arrivals include refugees. There will also be new residency quotas in other areas. The government plans to relocate Syrian refugees from districts where they make up more than 25 percent of the population.

February 17, 2022: President Erdogan’ has sent two of his top foreign policy advisers to Israel to discuss improving diplomatic and other relations.

 

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