The Emerging Strategic Axis of Turkey-Ukraine

In recent years, Turkey has been paying close attention to the Black Sea, where it is steadily developing an ever closer relationship with another important country in the region, Ukraine. Ankara-Kiev strategic cooperation is gradually expanding into more and more areas, especially security, and has the potential to significantly change the geopolitical balance in the Black Sea.

The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014 were the turning point in bilateral relations. While previously the two sides did not attach much importance to their relations, apart from the trade side, the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the subsequent escalation of geopolitical tensions in the Black Sea, made Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation a top priority for the two countries. Meetings between high-ranking officials and other diplomatic contacts intensified. In addition, negotiations on the signing of a free trade agreement, which had been suspended in 2013, have resumed.

Turkey, on the other hand, has been cautious and refused to impose sanctions on Russia for its actions, as did the US and the European Union, in order to maintain a balance in its extremely sensitive relations with Moscow. On the other hand, Ankara has clearly supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refused to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, a position it maintains to this day.

The main reason for the strongly negative Turkish stance is that the annexation of Crimea changed the balance of military power in the Black Sea in favor of Russia. Previously, the Russian Black Sea Fleet was in extremely poor condition, consisting mainly of old vessels. By imposing its control over Crimea, however, Russia has significantly increased its Exclusive Economic Zone and its Black Sea coastline, which is now almost equal to that of Turkey. Subsequently, Moscow canceled previous agreements with Ukraine, which limited the Black Sea Fleet, and began to strengthen the fleet with new upgraded surface vessels and submarines. At the same time, Russia has installed a dense network of advanced weapons systems on the Crimean peninsula, such as the S-400 anti-aircraft systems. S-300 and Pantsir-S1 and the Bastion-P anti-ship system, as well as various types of radar and electronic warfare systems. The annexation of Crimea means that almost the entire Black Sea is now within the scope of these systems.

The changing balance of military power in favor of Russia has raised fears in Turkey that the Black Sea is gradually turning into a “Russian lake.” But Ankara is reluctant to escalate tensions with Moscow by allowing NATO to increase its presence in the region. Therefore, the development of closer bilateral relations with Ukraine has emerged as a means of balancing increased Russian activity in the Black Sea. In addition, co-operation with a pro-Western state such as Ukraine has made a positive contribution to Turkey’s relations with the United States, which have faced many problems in recent years.

For Kiev, the cultivation of relations with Turkey is part of its general anti-Russian policy and its effort to strengthen the armed forces after the outbreak of the conflict with Russia. Bilateral co-operation with Turkey is a great opportunity, given that Turkey has NATO’s second strongest army and is also a Black Sea country.

In the Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation on common security, the defense industry is prominent. In this area, the interests of the two states are complementary. Turkey seeks to develop its defense industry in order to ensure self-sufficiency in the armaments field. As Ankara’s western partners have not been willing to provide it with the necessary know-how for this purpose, Ukraine is a major alternative. Kiev has a remarkable defense industry, which it inherited from the Soviet Union. In this context, multilateral and mutually beneficial cooperation has been developed, with Ukraine providing military technology and know-how to Turkey and managing armaments programs jointly with the Turkish side,

The foundations of cooperation in the defense industry were laid with agreements signed in 2014, 2016 and 2018. In 2018, Ukraine procured 6 Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles Bayraktar TB2. In 2019, the Turkish Baykar Makina, manufacturer of Bayraktar, and the Ukrainian Ukrpetrskport signed an agreement to create a consortium, with the aim of joint production of modern weapons systems. The co-operation will reportedly solve the long-standing problems of the Turkish defense industry in engine construction. For example, the new Turkish drone Akinci uses a Ukrainian engine. In addition, the two sides have expressed their ambition over the past year to extend this cooperation to the space sector and to the production of satellites, fighter jets, armor and missiles.

In October, during the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Istanbul, a new general agreement on cooperation in the defense industry was signed. In the last two months, agreements have been signed for space cooperation, for the sale of four Turkish MILGEM warships in Ukraine, as well as for the creation of a new Turkish-Ukrainian consortium, with the aim of producing up to 48 Bayraktar TB2 in Ukraine. Some of them will be deployed near the front in eastern Ukraine, for possible future use against pro-Russian separatist forces.

Another motive behind Turkey’s interest in Ukraine is Ankara’s historical and cultural ties with the Crimean Tatar community. For centuries, the autonomous Tatar kingdom in Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire. The annexation by Russia in the late 18 th century Russian policies against Tatars brought large population movements in Turkey, during the 19 the 20 the century. Today, the Tatar population in Turkey is estimated at 3,000,000-6,000,000, while Crimea is home to about 250,000 Tatars, accounting for 12% of the population.

The Tatar community in Turkey is active, with more than 50 organizations, and maintains close ties with the ancestral land. The annexation of Crimea further mobilized the Tatar diaspora, as the Tatar leadership strongly opposed Russia because of its historical past. Reports from the Turkish government and the international media point to violations of Tatar rights by the Russian authorities. Turkey, which sees itself as a protective force of all Turkish communities abroad, often expresses concerns about the situation of Tatars in Crimea. Typically, the Erdogan-Zelensky joint statement at the October meeting emphasized discrimination against Tatars and spoke of “joint protection of human rights” in Crimea. Most likely,

The significant development of Turkish-Ukrainian relations over the last seven years or so shows that, despite frequent reports about the Russia-Turkey rapprochement, which is absolutely certain, Turkey still considers Russia a serious threat, which must be treated. Close co-operation with Ukraine demonstrates the common understanding of Turkey and the US-NATO on the geopolitics of the Black Sea. In the long run, if this cooperation continues at the current pace, it is likely to make a significant contribution to military assistance to both Ukraine and Turkey, consolidating a new Euro-Atlantic-backed regional axis, which will pose a serious challenge to Russian interests in the region.

Author’s note: First published in greek at

Ioannis Chouliaras
Ioannis Chouliaras
Ioannis Chouliaras is an undergraduate student at the Department of International and European Studies of the University of Piraeus, Greece. He is also a researcher at the Greek Institute of International Relations. His main areas of research are Russia and post-Soviet states, Middle East and North Africa and the Balkans.