Russia using vaccines, tourists to pressure Turkey over drones sales to Ukraine - report

Russia is using vaccines and tourists to pressure Turkey over drone sales to Ukraine, Radio France International said on Thursday.

Ankara has backed Kyiv in its simmering conflict with Moscow over eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, including providing military technology.

Ukraine recently purchased Turkish-made armed drones which proved effective against Russian hardware in other conflicts, including between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The purchase was a sign of the growing military partnership between the two countries, air defence analyst Arda Mevlütoğlu told Radio France International.

"Drones have become most important, most symbolic elements of Turkish-Ukraine defence cooperation. Ukraine is one of the first countries that purchased Turkish drones," Mevlutoglu said.

The drone sales have angered Russia, which recently threatened to review its own military cooperation with Turkey should future transfers go ahead.  

However, Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute told Radio France International that Turkey was ready to sell Ukraine another 25 drones despite the risk of them being used against Russian forces.

"I think if Ukrainians use Turkish drones against Russian tanks or cars, trucks, whatsoever, then we have a problem," he said.

Russia suspended tourism to Turkey following the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Istanbul on April 10, dealing a further blow to the fragile Turkish economy.

Russian officials denied the developments were linked, pointing instead to the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases across Turkey in recent weeks. But the move followed similar pattern set by Moscow after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in 2015, Radio France International said.

Denying Tukey access to the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine could also be used to put pressure on Ankara, according to the French news outlet.

Turkey has repeatedly struggled to secure enough doses of vaccine for its near 80 million population, slowing the country’s mass vaccination programme.

But other experts doubted whether differences over Ukraine would be enough to derail Turkish-Russian relations, which have proven resilient to other crises, including over the Syrian conflict.

“We see that the relations with Moscow and Turkey mean they can digest the conflicts,” Zaur Gasimov of the University of Bonn told Radio France International.

“The cooperation is so multilayered that it can overcome the smaller conflictive situation like this one, now around Ukrainian-Turkish military cooperation," he said.