Rebuking Russia, Turkey Pledges to Fund Ukraine’s Military

KYIV,
Ukraine—On Feb. 3, Turkish President Recep Erdogan joined Ukrainian President
Volodymyr Zelenskyy outside Kyiv’s 18th-century Mariyinsky
Palace to review an honor guard of Ukrainian troops. A band played the anthems of both countries. Along the
nearby streets, Turkish and Ukrainian flags hung side-by-side on light poles.

The Mariyinsky Palace was originally built as a residence for
the Russian Czars. Thus, it was a fittingly symbolic place for the two leaders
to meet on the day Erdogan announced $36 million in Turkish military aid for
Ukraine—a country currently at war against Russian forces in its southeastern
Donbas region.

“We fully support and will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea,” Erdogan told reporters Monday in Kyiv, referring to a Ukrainian peninsular territory that Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attend a press conference following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2020. (Photo:
NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine on Monday came at a time of
heightened tensions between Turkey and Russia. On Feb. 2, seven Turkish
soldiers and one civilian were killed in Syria by forces loyal to Bashar
al-Assad, Syria’s Russian-backed dictator.

The attack happened in Syria’s embattled Idlib region.
Turkish officials said they gave advanced notice of their troops’ positions to
the Russians. Russian officials said the warning never came.

In turn, Erdogan reportedly told Russia “to not stand in our
way” as Turkey retaliated against Syrian government forces with airstrikes and
artillery.

“Those
who test Turkey’s determination with such vile attacks will understand their
mistake,” Erdogan said, adding: “It is not possible for us to remain
silent when our soldiers are being martyred.”

Tit for Tat

Amid the backdrop of Ankara’s latest row with Moscow, some
saw Erdogan’s offer of military aid to Ukraine on Monday as a direct rebuke
against Russia’s support of Assad.

Yet, according to Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage
Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Turkey has
had a “complicated” relationship with Russia for a long time—well before the
current war in Syria.

“For centuries Russia and Turkey have been competitors, and
at times enemies, in the Black Sea, the South Caucasus, and in the Middle East,”
Coffey said.

Those
historically fractious Russo-Turkish relations have certainly had their highs
and lows in recent years.

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft
near the Syria–Turkey border. Less than four years later, however, Ankara
took possession of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems it had purchased from
Russia. The move strained Ankara’s relations with the U.S. and other NATO
allies.

The
Turkish military went on to test its Russian missiles against U.S.-made F-16
fighter aircraft—the same type used to shoot down the Russian Sukhoi in 2015.

After
the S-400 deal, Turkey’s relations with Russia seemed to be on the mend. For
one, a new gas pipeline connecting Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea just
recently went online, allowing Gazprom, Russia’s national gas conglomerate, to
bypass Ukrainian transit pipelines, which have moved Russian gas to Europe
since the Soviet era.

Known
as TurkStream, the new Russian pipeline comprises
two strings, each of which has the capacity to deliver 15.75 billion cubic
meters annually. According to information on Gazprom’s website, the first
string is meant to deliver gas to Turkey, while the second string will directly
deliver Russian gas to southeastern Europe.

Yet, tensions over the war in Syria have soured the budding
bonhomie between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan. So, too, has
Russia’s systematic persecution of a Turkic
ethnic group living in Crimea—the Tatars.

“Turkey has been one of the most vocal supporters of
Ukraine’s territorial integrity and has been one of the only Muslim-majority
countries in the world to criticize Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars,”
Heritage’s Coffey said. “This is why, when commentators and pundits say that
Turkey has shifted its foreign policy to be more aligned with Russia, they fail
to understand these old divisions that exist.”

Erdogan and Zelenskyy signed a sweeping bilateral agreement
on Monday, pledging a tighter strategic partnership between their two countries
with the goal of doubling bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2023.

“We need to strengthen strategic partnership in the
economic field,” Zelenskyy told reporters. “We talked about everything: roads,
housing, and enterprises.”

In January, the two countries struck a $600 million deal for
Ukraine to supply Turkey with cruise missile engines. On Monday, Ukrainian and
Turkish officials agreed to more joint military-industrial projects. Also,
Ukrainian and Turkish defense officials pledged ramped-up joint security
operations on the sea and in the air.

“We
are looking forward to developing cooperation to step up security in the region
by exchanging information on the naval situation in the Black Sea region, as
well as enhancing air defense capabilities,” Ukrainian Defense Minister
Andriy Zagorodnyuk told reporters.

New Kid on the Block

Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv came only three days after U.S.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a long-awaited visit to the Ukrainian
capital city.

The back-to-back visits by delegations from NATO’s two most
powerful militaries underscore how Ukraine is playing an increasingly outsized
role in counterbalancing Russia’s destabilizing influence across Eastern
Europe.

“The Ukrainian people should know the United States
understands that Ukraine is an important country,” Pompeo said in Kyiv on Jan. 31. “It’s
not just the geographic heart of Europe. It’s a bulwark between freedom and
authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.”

Pompeo pledged America’s continued support for Ukraine’s
armed forces.

Ukraine has been locked in a stalemated, static trench war against Russian forces in its southeastern Donbas region since April of 2014. Over the course of the war, Ukraine has revamped its armed forces to meet the immediate needs of combat in the Donbas. Yet, looking forward, Ukraine’s military aspirations extend further than the Donbas battlefields.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shake hands during a signing ceremony of Ukrainian-Turkish bilateral documents, after their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2020. (Photo:
NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Overall,
Kyiv’s strategic goal is to field a military capable of repelling a full-scale
Russian invasion. Also, Ukraine’s national security strategy calls for the
country’s armed forces to adopt NATO operating standards with hopes of one day
joining the Western alliance.

Ukraine
now fields 250,000 active-duty soldiers—second only to Russia in terms manpower
among European militaries. Moreover, Ukraine’s troops are battle-hardened after
more than six years of constant combat against Russian forces in both
conventional and hybrid warfare. No NATO country rivals Ukraine in terms of
combat experience against the modern Russian military.

“For Ukraine, a sovereign state subjected to a multi-year
campaign of ongoing Russian aggression, the stakes are high,” said James
Gilmore, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, during a Feb. 6 meeting in Vienna.

“The United States fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty,
independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized
borders, including its territorial waters,” Gilmore said. “We do not, nor will
we ever, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea.”

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