From Ankara With Implications: Turkish Drones and Alliance Entrapment
Earlier this month, the Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey tweeted a picture showing a model of Ankara’s newest drone with Ukrainian insignia on the tail and a long-range precision-guided missile hanging off the fuselage. Turkey is already co-producing drones with Ukraine. The picture raises the question of whether Ankara is also prepared to sell its 250 kilometer-range standoff missiles to Kyiv as well.
To date, Washington has largely viewed military cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine in positive terms. But, when it comes to long-range missiles, the risks could well be greater than the rewards. If these sales increase the chances of a Russian invasion without meaningfully increasing Kyiv’s capacity to resist one, they will have a negative impact on NATO’s security. Not only does this create a short-term challenge for Washington to navigate, but it raises bigger alliance entrapment issues with which the United States will have to deal in coming years.
Kyiv’s Concerns, Moscow’s Threats
Kyiv has an interest in purchasing affordable air power, complete with options for precision-guided munitions and sensors to increase the situational awareness of its ground forces. The Turkish TB2 drone is a low-cost platform that is available for export and that has been battle-tested in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In many ways, it is the perfect drone for lower-income countries eager to build or augment some sort of air arm.
Moscow, in turn, has demanded that NATO refrain from providing Ukraine with certain long-range missiles. Russia retains military overmatch and, as evidenced by its recent build-up, appears willing to use this to punish Ukraine for its deepening military relationship with NATO.
The essence of the problem is that limited Western military support for Ukraine has little effect on Russian decision-making vis-à-vis an invasion, but the Russian national security elite can use it to extrapolate a future in which Kyiv agrees to host hostile long-range strike systems. These fears could be used to justify Russian investments in offensive systems over the long term. Or, worse, they could be used to justify an invasion to prevent this scenario in the short term. The export of any conventional weapons system to Ukraine — absent the extension of a formal, nuclear-backed U.S. security guarantee to Kyiv — is unlikely to be “game changing” from a deterrence point of view. This means the acquisition of certain systems — like the TB2 and the American Javelin anti-tank missile — may actually further incentivize a Russian invasion instead of deterring one. Turkish exports, in other words, could force Washington to deal with the negative repercussion of an arms deal with which it was not involved.
Ankara is in a different situation than Washington. Turkey does not guarantee NATO’s security. Instead, it would largely be shielded from negative outcomes following a Russian invasion because of its continued cordial ties with both Moscow and Kyiv. NATO also ultimately guarantees Turkish security. This reality should give American policymakers pause when assessing the actual value of Turkish-Ukrainian defense ties.
The Turkish-Ukrainian defense relationship has deepened in recent years. Ankara has turned to Kyiv for engines for the Akinci drone and, potentially, for other jet-powered fighters and unmanned platforms now in development. The Turkish turn to Kyiv came amid a serious downturn in Turkish defense ties with its traditional Western suppliers in the United States and Europe, creating a pathway for Ukrainian manufacturers to step in and provide engines for Bayraktar brand drone products. Ankara has returned the favor, selling the TB2 and accompanying munitions to Kyiv and building maintenance and production facilities to service Ukraine’s growing unmanned fleet. The United States has indirectly supported the Turkish-Ukrainian defense relationship and, according to interviews I have conducted with defense officials, views Turkish support for the Ukrainian armed forces as a net positive for American regional policy. In the abstract, this policy makes perfect sense. A U.S. ally is keen to sell a U.S. partner offensive weapons to challenge Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, as Russian anger with Kyiv has grown, the risk of a further invasion of Ukraine has grown as well.
Turkey has the luxury of “fence-sitting” with Russia, while the United States is called upon to reassure the entirety of the North Atlantic Alliance as the ultimate guarantor of Western security. Turkish officials can compartmentalize their relations with Moscow, a key economic partner and weapons supplier, as well as Ukraine, a defense industrial partner and neighboring Black Sea power. Turkey can fence sit precisely because it is a member of NATO. The collective security guarantee backstops its own foreign policy choices and shields it from direct Russian military aggression and, in much the same way, Western anger at its independent foreign policy choices. However, its current support for Ukraine could have broader repercussions for the United States. Washington, to be clear, should not be in the business of coercing allied third parties from engaging in legitimate commerce. Yet, it would be short-sighted to simply assume that any Turkish support for Kyiv is good for American interests and, therefore, worthy of support.
Turkish political elites have a nuanced view of Black Sea security. Ankara is a NATO member, but has also purchased the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. This purchase resulted in Turkey being removed from the American-led F-35 program, which is to serve as the front line fighter for much of the Western world in the near-to-medium term. The use of Turkish drones in Syria and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war also prompted European and Western suppliers to Bayraktar to halt the export of certain technologies Ankara had leveraged to build the TB2. These embargoes, in turn, prompted deeper Turkish-Ukrainian aerospace cooperation at approximately the same time Russia began to take steps to prepare for an invasion. Turkish foreign policy has sought to balance its relations with these two antagonistic actors, Russia and Ukraine, while simultaneously suggesting to Washington that its support for Ukraine demonstrates its value to NATO and shows why U.S. sanctions for the S-400 purchase are shortsighted.
The Turkish approach is entirely rational. Russia is an important energy supplier to Turkey and an important source of tourism dollars for Ankara’s now battered economy. Any sanction that increases the cost of energy, or makes trade with Russia more difficult, is bad for the Turkish economy. Ankara also relies on its NATO security guarantee to cooperate closely with Ukraine for its own commercial and economic interests. These include maximizing the market share of its drones and, critically, keepings its own drone fleet flying and immune from Western pressure. Drones have become a core component of Turkish foreign policy and are now the main tool in its domestic fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Akinci model drone tweeted by the Ukrainian ambassador is more capable than the TB2. The standoff cruise missile it was carrying is certain to be an effective and well-built munition. Moreover, Ankara has already sold this missile to Azerbaijan. Taken together, this means that further Turkish exports to Ukraine cannot be ruled out.
How can Washington deal with the risk of Turkey selling Ukraine military systems that will give Moscow a casus belli without providing any corresponding protection?
There are no easy answers. It would be unwise for Washington to coerce its allies into not selling certain defense products to U.S. partners. In this specific case, U.S. pressure would not sway Turkish thinking about defense cooperation with Kyiv. More importantly, Washington would essentially be giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the right to veto third-party arms sales.
The Turkish challenge is a microcosm of broader trends Washington is certain to face in the near future. At the end of the Cold War, only a few countries mass produced cruise missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles. The technical hurdles to effectively using long range precision strike missiles precluded countries from investing in, and deploying, these types of weapons. The technical hurdles to developing these weapons, however, have steadily eroded. The TB2 is a good example of this trend. The drone is Turkish-made, but it has commercial Western components in its guidance systems and sensors. These Western components are critical for key functions of the TB2 but are not covered by any export control list. The Turkish munitions that are then used to complete the kill chain are, in a sense, dependent on the availability of Western commercial systems. The United States has no hope of retaining a monopoly on these items and cannot control the spread of commercially available products that have dual-use functions. As a result, the barrier to entry for the development and use of precision-guided munitions is substantially lowered and, with demand for such weapons remaining constant, a ravenous export market has emerged that sellers can exploit.
The rise of these alternative suppliers could tempt national security elites in countries like Ukraine to lean on American allies to provide weapons that Washington may not be willing to sell them directly. Kyiv can leverage Turkish technology that is more affordable than the U.S. equivalent, rapidly available for export, and accompanied by Turkish offers to provide local offsets for the Ukrainian aerospace industry. Ukraine, in turn, can offer its own products to power Turkish drones as part of a mutually beneficial defense-economic relationship. This new reality is a form of entrapment, wherein a state with a U.S. security guarantee like Turkey feels comfortable fence-sitting and engaging with Kyiv and Moscow in mutually beneficial ways.
Ankara, in short, can sell Kyiv weapons, while simultaneously refusing to join with U.S. or E.U. sanctions against Russia. This means it can seek a middle ground to manage the second-order effects that a Ukrainian-Russian conflict would entail without tilting too far toward the U.S. and European positions.
The risk of war in Ukraine is acute. The pathway to de-escalation is murky. The United States and Russia may choose to engage in iterative discussions to forestall military action. The added challenge now is that other actors formally allied with the United States have incentives to deepen relations with Ukraine. The United States cannot control Turkish actions but may have to live with the consequences if Ankara were to cross a Russian red line or if Turkish action were to be used to justify an action Washington is seeking to stop.
This dynamic portends a future where America’s global alliances will face challenges created by the technological advancement of its treaty partners. This new form of entrapment requires looking beyond simplistic calculations about the potential costs and benefits of allied support for at-risk partners.
The United States manages a web of interconnected alliances. Those alliances are the key enablers of American power. The Turkish-Ukrainian partnership helps both countries’ economies and helps to sustain an industry the United States has considerable interest in keeping alive. However, it also entails costs. As allies and partners within that web seek to carve out their own niche defense capabilities, the proliferation of conventional weapons suppliers ensures that some of these allies will sell weapons to U.S. partners embroiled in conflicts with U.S. adversaries. Washington will not be able to control or manage such transactions. But it has an interest in how they impact conflicts Washington will be asked to manage. Russia, most certainly, should not be allowed to dictate how the United States treats its allies and partners. But the United States is not immune to the risks these allies and partners’ behavior may create.
Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the author of the forthcoming book The US War Against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate.