Ukraine sends high-level delegation to Turkey in a sign of deepening ties

Ukraine and Turkey’s political leaders find themselves increasingly supporting one another politically in regional conflicts while cultivating stronger economic and defence ties.

Over the weekend, a delegation of high-level Ukrainian officials arrived in Ankara for two days of talks aimed at boosting bilateral ties in the latest sign of growing cooperation between the two Black Sea states.

The focus of the trip was to encourage more Turkish investment in Ukraine and the makeup of the visiting entourage appeared to reflect this goal: travelling alongside Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal were his ministers for strategic industries and infrastructure. They met with representatives of Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) and the Turkish-Ukrainian Business Council.

On Monday morning, Shmyhal met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the presidential palace, where he praised Turkey as a key partner promoting regional stability. He expressed hope that the two will conclude a free trade agreement that would promote their partnership further.

Shmyal’s visit to Turkey reflects the budding relationship it has been fostering with Ukraine in recent years. Just a month before this visit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky travelled to Ankara for a summit with Erdoğan where they signed agreements to double trade to $10 billion from its current $4.8 billion.

However, trade remains only one area where Turkey and Ukraine have found themselves aligned further. At multiple points during his visit, Shmyal made it clear his country views Turkey as a key partner. 

“We have a mutual understanding regarding all issues on our agenda,” Shmyal told Demirören News Agency. “Without hesitation, we can characterise as our friend and partner the Republic of Turkey.”

Much attention has been paid to Turkey’s relationship over the years with Russia, which has been defined as much by competition as it has been by cooperation. Despite the deeply antagonistic relationship Ukraine has with Russia, owing to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and occupation of their border regions in the Donbas, Kyiv’s relationship has matured considerably with Ankara.

The most apparent example of this has been in defence cooperation, particularly in the realm of unmanned aerial vehicles. Last year, Ukraine purchased six Bayraktar TB2 combat drones from Turkey and last week announced plans to purchase five more.

Vadym Nozdri, CEO of state conglomerate Ukrspetsexport, said in October that Ukraine was interested in purchasing up to 48 TB2s, which would make the country the drone’s largest operator outside Turkey.

Since acquiring the TB2, Ukrainian forces have tested its compatibility with Javelin anti-tank teams as well as its capability in reconnaissance and counter-sniper operations, according to local media. 

One participant to this weekend’s discussions was Haluk Bayraktar, the creator of the namesake drone, who tweeted: “Together to a strong future.”

The development of Turkey’s drones have in several ways been the product of growing defence ties with Ukraine. Ankara’s latest drone, known as the Akinci, is powered by a Ukrainian-developed turboprop engine and Baykar, Bayraktar’s drone firm, concluded a joint venture with Ukrspetsexport  to produce new engines and missile technology called Black Sea Shield. The countries are even now in talks about developing an unmanned fighter jet, according to the Ukrainian Defence Review.

Prime Minister Shmyal said that defence cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine has been complementary and a “basic element of strategic cooperation”. 

Politically, Ukrainian officials have taken stances favourable to Turkey even as other countries condemned Turkish actions in conflicts like those in Libya and the South Caucasus. Speaking to Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that his country is on “the same page” as Turkey.

In the case of Azerbaijan, Kuleba said that every frozen conflict without a solution has the potential to erupt all over again and that Kyiv supported Turkey backing the Azeri government against fellow former Soviet republic Armenia.

In 2014, Ukraine recalled its ambassador to Armenia following Yerevan’s recognition of the staged referendum in Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula. Kuleba’s remarks hinted at a particular resonance for Ukraine, given its own inability to restore its control over either Crimea or the Donbas regions on the Russian border.

Turkey has consistently refused to recognise Crimea as part of Russia and has advocated for the Crimean Tatars of the peninsula. In October 2017, Erdoğan personally intervened to secure the release of two Crimean Tatars imprisoned by Moscow for rejecting the Russian referendum.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Kuleba said that Ukraine sees Turkey as a “good partner” for creating a global platform to solve the issue of the Crimean annexation. Currently, international forums exist related to the Donbas conflict but not Crimea. 

“We are grateful to Turkey for consistently and firmly supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and also the willingness of President Erdoğan to engage with the Ukrainian president on resolving issues related to this situation, in particular when it comes to the destiny of Crimean Tatars living under Russian occupation in Crimea,” Kuleba said.