The artillery fire exhanged between the Ukrainian Regular Army and the separatist militia from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on 26 October prompted Kyiv to use its Bayraktar TB2 drones manufactured by Baykar Makina for the first time. Europe, Germany in particular, did not look favourably upon this operation. Above all, it put Ankara in a difficult spot. Though Baykar’s CEO, Haluk Bayraktar, is heavily involved in Kyiv’s push to modernise its armed forces and travels to Ukraine once a month, Ankara is not keen on any sort of association with Ukraine’s attacks on the pro-Russian militia.
Ankara’s word play
Consequently, during the G20 summit in Rome, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu tried to officially disassociate Ankara from the operation. After a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Cavusoglu told Kyiv, via a press conference, to stop referring to the drones as Turkish and went on to push the idea that the nationality that applies in the weapons market is that of the buyer. And with good reason, as Turkey has many contracts with the Russian military industry despite numerous opposing stances, namely for the purchase of S400 surface-to-air missile systems but also with gas suppliers.
A prosperous partnership all around the Black Sea
Not withstanding this official posture, Ankara continues to keep a close eye on Kyiv in an attempt to turn Bayraktar into a household name. The company is working on various projects: a coordination centre for drone maintenance, repair and modernisation as well as training for military personnel near Vasylkiv, on the outskirts of Kyiv. On 29 September, then Ukrainian Minister of Defence Andriy Taran and Haluk Bayraktar signed a memo pertaining to this in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s presence. They also plan to build other maintenance centres in the future.
Moreover, the Bayraktar drones used by the Ukrainian army will soon be produced in-country. Less than a week after the announcement about the construction of the first maintenace centre, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba announced the imminent construction of a Bayraktar drone manufacturing plant in Ukraine.
In spite of the current scramble and Ankara’s need to play it safe with Moscow, Turkey and Ukraine having a booming relationship in multiple industries. Various joint ventures, namely Black Sea Shield, created as a goodwill gesture in 2019 by Baykar Defence, and state-run defence export company Ukrspecexport, have led to projects like Akinci, meant to equip Ukraine with state-of-the-art drones built with Ukrainian motors. Ukraine’s recently appointed Turkish ambassador Vassyl Bodnar also actively supports this relationship. Bodnar already worked in Turkey from 2013 to 2017 as director of the Turkey and South Caucasus regional office. He also served in Moscow and Warsaw. In Ankara, he replaced Andriy Sybiha, named deputy head of the president’s office in charge of foreign relations and the development of strategic partnerships in June.
This bilateral relationship also plays out off-shore. Kyiv ordered four Milgem speed boats from Turkey. The boats are part of a programme sponsored by the Turkish Navy, Aselsan and Havelsan, and will be manufactured at Ukrainian Okean Shipyards .
Murky border movement
After the military operation, as soon as negative reactions from the international community began to appear, Kyiv tried to justify the Bayraktar drone attack as an act of self-defence. According to Ukrainian authorities, the drone was fighting off a howitzer attack from separitists stationed near the town of Staromarivka, about 12km west of Boikivske, known to Russians and their supporters as Telmanovo. Kyiv argues that howitzers are outlawed by the Minsk Protocol, which was first signed under the auspices of the OSCE in 2014 to put an end, tenous as it was, to the fighting in Donbas. DPR’s militia accuses Kyiv of violating the same protocol, by moving beyond the buffer zone and using combat drones. The shots were fired when the national army was trying to regain control of Staromarivka.
These tensions abound in an already murky environment. On 1 November, the Ukrainian military had to refute articles in the US press, notably the Washington Post, stating that satellite images from Maxar indicate Russia is increasing its military presence along the northern border of Ukraine, near Yelnya. Two days later, after several military drills, such as Zapad 2021 carried out jointly with Minsk, Kyiv finally admitted that around 80-90,000 soldiers are indeed stationed in the area.