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Ukraine turns to Turkey as Russia threatens full-scale war

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Istanbul over the weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of his country’s strategic partnership with Turkey and shore up support from his Black Sea neighbour as tensions escalate with Russia over Ukraine’s simmering war in Donbas.

“Turkey’s support for the restoration of our sovereignty and territorial integrity is extremely important,” Zelenskyy stated in a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Following a meeting with the Turkish leader, Zelenskyy tweeted, “We share common values with #Turkey, including human life and support.”

While Turkey spars with the United States and other Western European leaders over the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and the conflict in Syria, the aspiring NATO country of Ukraine has developed strong ties with Ankara.

Saturday’s visit marks the Ukrainian leader’s second trip to Turkey in less than six months.

In 2017, the countries created a passport-free travel zone and they are currently working on the implementation of a free-trade agreement, which leaders say will more than double the level of bilateral trade between them.

“The drifting away from the West discourse is very popular in European and US capitals. The West doesn’t want to see that there are really problematic areas in Turkish-Russian relations,” Bilgehan Ozturk, an analyst with the SETA Foundation, an Ankara-based think-tank seen as close to the Erdogan government, told Al Jazeera.

Ozturk said Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a game-changer for Ankara’s relations with Moscow and how it viewed the balance of power in the Black Sea.

Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 has become one of the most intractable elements of Turkey’s relationship with the West, but placed outside its borders and in the hands of Russia, the missile system is also a serious challenge to Turkey’s security.

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it immediately began deploying the S-400 there. It also built up its naval forces, stationing submarines and ships with Kalibr cruise missiles capable of hitting targets 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.

Istanbul is roughly 600km (375 miles) from Crimea.

That math led to a 2016 speech by Erdogan in which he stated the Black Sea was becoming a “Russian lake” and warned, “If we do not take action history will not forgive us.”

Erdogan has advocated for a stronger NATO presence in the region as Russia increases the size of its naval fleet.

More recently, Turkey has looked at the Black Sea as a step towards greater energy independence.
In October 2020, it announced the discovery of 405 billion cubic metres of gas off its coast, the largest finding in the country’s history.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquillity and cooperation,” the Turkish president stated, speaking next to his Ukrainian counterpart at Saturday’s news conference.

Military technology

Ankara views Ukraine as a crucial buffer against Russia and has been a strong advocate for its acceptance into the NATO alliance
The two countries are cooperating on a range of defence projects and agreements.

Last year, Ukraine agreed to buy four of Turkey’s MILGEM Ada-class corvettes, small warships known for their manoeuvrability. The countries are jointly producing the vessels.

Faced with growing animosity in Western capitals, Ankara views Ukraine as a partner in the development of military technology in everything from satellites and radar to missiles.

Experts say one of the more advanced areas of cooperation is engine production and design. Turkey is working with Ukrainian companies to develop diesel engines for its fifth-generation fighter jet and main battle tank.

But it is Ukraine’s purchase of Turkey’s combat drones, which military experts and analysts are watching closely, especially as tensions in eastern Ukraine heat up.

Turkey has positioned itself as a niche exporter of UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) and promoted them for success on battlefields in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In the latter conflict, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone is widely credited with helping to tip the balance of power towards Azerbaijan in that country’s war with Armenia.

Source: Al Jazeera

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