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Why Ukraine’s Turkish-made drone became a flash point in tensions with Russia

Ukraine claims it destroyed a Russian howitzer in October 2021 in the eastern Donbas region using a drone made by NATO-member Turkey. (Video: Armed Forces of Ukraine)

KYIV — In the drone’s-eye video released by Ukraine’s military, a small, blue targeting square hovers over an image on the ground.

After several seconds, a large plume of smoke bursts up from the spot. Two people are then seen running away from the site, where Ukraine claims it destroyed a D-30 howitzer used by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.

But the strike on Oct. 26 — from a Bayraktar TB2 drone made by NATO-member Turkey — represented more than another clash in nearly eight years of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

For Russia, it was another signal that Ukraine is boosting its arsenal to potentially change the military balance in the region — and why Moscow is demanding NATO end all defense cooperation with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics such as Georgia. The United States and its NATO allies say that Russia can never dictate its policies.

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The impasse was clear during high-stakes diplomatic talks in Europe this week between the West and Russia, leaving Russian officials to suggest that future dialogue is pointless. Russia has threatened that it will take “military technical” measures if its requests are rejected.

Moscow has denied that its buildup of more than 100,000 troops and military hardware near the Ukrainian border is preparation for an attack on the country, though U.S. intelligence has warned that a multipronged invasion could come as soon as this month.

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“Russia is seeing a trend where all of these NATO countries are delivering more and more weaponry to Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It’s not necessarily that significant yet, but I think they see the trend line, and they don’t like where that trend line is going.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly claimed that NATO could position a long-range missile system in Ukraine before long, though there’s no indication that the military alliance has considered such a step.

While the U.S.-provided weapons, such as the Javelin antitank missiles, have garnered the most headlines of Ukraine’s armory, Kyiv’s less-hyped backing from Turkey has raised alarms in Moscow. Not only did the purchase of the Bayraktar TB2 drones come without any apparent conditions on use, but Turkey and Ukraine have agreed to launch a production site of the drones in Ukraine.

“I think that, of course, this creates completely different conditions for hostilities,” said Serhiy Zgurets, a Ukrainian military expert. “It is an element of emotional and real influence on the enemy.”

Though Ukraine bought its first Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2019, it had held off on using them for strikes in the Donbas conflict until the front-line village of Hranitne came under heavy shelling on Oct. 26. The drones had been used for reconnaissance flights.

The artillery strikes from the separatists in October leveled civilian homes and wounded two Ukrainian armed servicemen, one of whom died. In a statement, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it first demanded a cease-fire through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, but “the reaction from the Russian occupation forces was negative.” The single drone strike followed.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to increase tactics and methods of combat use of Bayraktars to deter Russian aggression and protect Ukraine's interests,” the statement said.

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In a December phone conversation between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin brought up the Ukrainians’ use of Turkish-made drones, calling it a “destructive” behavior and “provocative activity,” according to the Kremlin readout. Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu has said Ankara can’t be blamed for Ukraine’s deployment of the weapons.

“This is already completely unpleasant news for the Russians, because this is a dramatic increase in combat capabilities,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a Kyiv-based military blogger. “Ukraine is acquiring what is considered a ‘game changing app.’ ”

The Bayraktar TB2 drones offer countries stealthy air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. They have featured prominently in conflicts in Libya and Syria, but it was perhaps Azerbaijan’s use of them in 2020 against Armenia that offered Ukraine an inspiring model.

Across 44 days of fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, the drones targeted Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroyed tanks, artillery and air defense systems. They tilted the scales in the more-than-three-decade conflict for Azerbaijan, which took back some territory under a cease-fire deal with Armenia.

While some NATO countries are cautious about weapons sales to Ukraine, Turkey is a “wild card,” said Lee, the Russian military expert. Germany, for example, has blocked Ukraine’s purchase of defensive weapons through the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, Ukrainian officials have said.

Russia and Germany have economic cooperation via the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that runs through Danish waters to Germany, bypassing existing supply routes through Ukraine. Some Western countries are wary of supplying Ukraine with more weapons because that could be deemed a provocation for Russia, or even serve as a pretext for an attack.

“They’re afraid,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said of the Germans. “They constantly stick rods in our tires over this issue.”

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Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said Turkey’s support for Ukraine was a “delicate and difficult balancing act” because of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which has “elements of cooperation but elements of competition and rivalry.”

It has resulted in a complicated geopolitical relationship between Moscow and Ankara over the past few years.

Turkish and Russian soldiers and mercenaries have faced off in armed conflict in Syria and Libya. At the same time, Turkey has purchased a sophisticated air defense system from Russia, a move that angered its NATO partners and resulted in sanctions from the United States.

While Erdogan’s government has taken a hard line in refusing to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, it has not followed Europe and the United States in sanctioning Moscow.

Turkey also sees in Ukraine an opportunity to expand the growing list of customers for its armed drones and take advantage of Ukraine’s defense production capabilities, including its ability to manufacture rocket engines, Ulgen said.

At the mention of “Turkish drones,” Danilov responded: “They’re ours, which we bought. … Engines for these drones are being made in our country.”

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But while the drones were a “game-changer” in other battles between countries with less sophisticated military hardware, it’s unlikely they would make much of a difference against Russia, Lee said. Russia’s Defense Ministry has already posted images of training exercises for how to counter Bayraktar TB2 drones.

“If Ukraine gets into a fight with Russia, Russia will destroy them,” Lee said. “Russia could shoot them down, or even before that, they can destroy the airfields where TB2s operate, or they can destroy the ground control station.”

“The TB2s have never faced an integrated air-defense system like the one Russia has,” he added.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.

Read more:

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