KYIV, Ukraine — Turkish President Recep Erdogan joined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in front of the 18th-century Mariyinsky Palace in Kiev on Monday to review an honor guard of Ukrainian troops. A group played the anthems of the two countries. Along the surrounding streets, Turkish and Ukrainian flags hung side by side from lampposts.
The Mariyinsky Palace was originally built as a residence for the Russian tsars. So, 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 with Russian forces in his region. from south-eastern Donbass.
“We fully support and will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea,” Erdogan told reporters Monday in Kiev, referring to a Ukrainian peninsular territory that Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014 .
Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine comes at a time of heightened tensions between Turkey and Russia. The day before, February 2, seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian were killed in Syria by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the Russian-backed Syrian dictator.
The attack occurred in the Idlib region of Syria. Turkish officials said they had given the Russians advance notice of their troops’ positions. Russian officials said the warning never came.
In turn, Erdogan reportedly told Russia “not to stand in our way” as Turkey retaliated against Syrian government forces with airstrikes and artillery.
“Those who test Turkey’s resolve 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
In the context of Ankara’s latest dispute with Moscow, some saw Erdogan’s offer of military aid to Ukraine as a direct rebuke of Russian support for Assad.
Yet, according to Luke Coffey, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Turkey has a long “complicated” relationship with Russia, long before the current war in Syria.
“For centuries Russia and Turkey have been competitors, and sometimes enemies, in the Black Sea, the South Caucasus and the Middle East,” Coffey said.
These historically difficult Russian-Turkish relations have certainly seen their ups and downs in recent years.
In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft near the Syrian-Turkish border. Less than four years later, however, Ankara took possession of the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems it had purchased from Russia. This move strained Ankara’s relations with the United States and other NATO allies.
The Turkish military then tested its Russian missiles against American-made F-16 fighter jets, the same type used to bring down the Russian Sukhoi in 2015.
After the S-400 deal, Turkey’s relations with Russia seemed to improve. On the one hand, a new gas pipeline connecting Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea has just been commissioned, allowing Gazprom, the Russian national gas conglomerate, to bypass Ukrainian transit pipelines, which carry Russian gas to Europe since the Soviet era.
Known as TurkStream, Russia’s new gas pipeline consists of two chains, each with the capacity to deliver 15.75 billion cubic meters per year. According to information on the Gazprom website, the first channel is intended to deliver gas to Turkey, while the second channel will deliver Russian gas directly to southeastern Europe.
However, the tensions linked to the war in Syria have aggravated the nascent bonhomie between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan. The same is true of the systematic persecution by Russia of a Turkish ethnic group living in Crimea, the Tatars.
“Turkey has been one of the most fervent supporters of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and was one of the only Muslim-majority countries in the world to criticize Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars,” said declared Heritage Coffey. “That is why when commentators and experts say that Turkey has changed its foreign policy to align itself more with Russia, they fail to understand these old divisions that exist.”
Erdogan and Zelenskyy signed a sweeping bilateral deal, promising a closer strategic partnership between their two countries with the goal of doubling bilateral trade to $ 10 billion by 2023.
“We must strengthen the strategic partnership in the economic field,” Zelenskyy told reporters. “We talked about everything: roads, housing and businesses. “
In January, the two countries struck a $ 600 million deal for Ukraine to supply Turkey with cruise missile engines. Ukrainian and Turkish officials agreed on Monday on more joint military-industrial projects. In addition, Ukrainian and Turkish defense officials pledged to step up joint security operations at sea and in the air.
“We look forward to developing cooperation to enhance security in the region by exchanging information on the naval situation in the Black Sea region, as well as strengthening air defense capabilities,” the minister told reporters. Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk.
New kid in the neighborhood
Erdogan’s visit to Kiev came just three days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a long-awaited visit to the Ukrainian capital.
Consecutive visits by delegations from NATO’s two most powerful armies underscore the increasingly disproportionate role Ukraine plays in counteracting Russia’s destabilizing influence in Eastern Europe.
“The Ukrainian people should know that the United States understands that Ukraine is an important country,” Pompeo said in Kiev on January 31. “It’s not just the geographic heart of Europe. It is a bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.
Pompeo pledged continued U.S. support to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Ukraine has been locked in a blocked and static trench warfare against Russian forces in its southeastern Donbass region since April 2014. During the war Ukraine reorganized its armed forces to meet the immediate needs of fighting in the Donbass. Yet in the future, Ukraine’s military aspirations extend beyond the battlefields of Donbass.
Overall, Kiev’s strategic goal is to deploy an army capable of repelling a full-scale Russian invasion. In addition, Ukraine’s national security strategy calls on the country’s armed forces to adopt NATO operational standards in the hope of someday joining the Western alliance.
Ukraine now has 250,000 active duty soldiers, just behind Russia in terms of European military personnel. In addition, Ukrainian troops are seasoned after more than six years of constant fighting against Russian forces in conventional and hybrid wars. No NATO country rivals Ukraine in terms of combat experience against the modern Russian military.
“For Ukraine, a sovereign state subject to an ongoing multi-year campaign of Russian aggression, the stakes are high,” said James Gilmore, US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe , at a meeting on February 6 in Vienna.
“The United States fully supports the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, including its territorial waters,” Gilmore said. “We do not and will never recognize the alleged annexation of Crimea by Russia. “