Naval Air: Turkey Rebuilds Ukraine Navy

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August 9, 2021: The trade in military equipment between Turkey and Ukraine grew in July as Turkey delivered TB2 UAVs to the Ukrainian Navy four months ahead of schedule. The Ukraine Navy will use the UAVs to patrol the Black Sea coast and the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea that Russia is trying to control access to in violation of a 2003 treaty with Ukraine that detailed who could do what in the Sea of Azov. This treaty was important for both countries because the Sea of Azov has several busy Ukrainian ports that basically handle most seaborne trade for eastern Ukraine. The Sea of Azov is also the exit to the rest of the world for the Volga-Don Canal, one of the two canals that provide the landlocked Caspian Sea such access. Between 2000 and 2003 the United States used this canal to send Azerbaijan three coast guard ships.

In 2014 Russia unilaterally violated its treaties with Ukraine by seizing Crimea and tried to do the same with two provinces in eastern Ukraine (known as the Donbas, for Don River Basin). Russia had signed a 1994 treaty with Ukraine, Britain and United States to respect Ukrainian territory in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, which it had inherited after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and several of the fourteen new countries, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, found themselves the owners of Soviet ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons that were on their territory. The U.S. and Britain agreed to pay for dismantling the nuclear weapons and removing the Russian missiles, as part of a larger nuclear disarmament agreement between Russia and Western nuclear powers, mainly the U.S. and Britain. Part of all this was the money and technology needed to safely dismantle nearly a hundred nuclear powered submarines that Russia could not afford to deal with. Russia tore up the 1994 and 2003 treaties in 2014 as it declared unofficial war on NATO and real war on Ukraine. Most NATO countries responded with economic sanctions on Russia and various forms of aid for Ukraine, which then, and now, wants to join NATO, an organization founded after World War II for mutual protection against Russian (Soviet) military threats. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 many of the East European nations formerly under the control of Russia, often including the unwelcome presence of Russian troops, were eager to join NATO and many did. Russia declared Ukraine joining NATO a warlike act and saw its 2014 aggression in Crimea and Donbas as self-defense.

Which brings us to the Turkey-Ukrainian arms trade, which has developed and grown since 2014. Turkey was one of the original NAO members and the only Middle Eastern nation to join. The Turks joined because of the centuries old Russian threat and dozens of wars, many quite short, with Russia. Then Turkey got dragged into the still unfinished 2011 Syrian Civil War which involved lots of Islamic terrorists, Iran and Israel and eventually Russian and Turkish troops. Russia and Turkey were suddenly in an informal military alliance for a few years, which caused friction between Turkey and the other NATO members. Turkey began backing away from Russia in the last few years, especially when the U.S. cancelled Turkish orders for F-35 stealth fighters in 2019, mainly because Turkey had purchased a new S-400 air defense system from Russia which meant Turkey could no longer be part of the integrated NATO air defense system and in violation of its NATO obligations. Turkey also found it no longer had access to a lot of American military technology, including engines for its new helicopter gunship. At that point Turkey decided to mend its NATO ties. While the Turks still cooperated with Russia in Syria, they also began buying and selling military equipment with Ukraine, which wanted to be in NATO and was very much at war with an aggressive Russia.

Turkey is building warships for Ukraine and other export customers and getting gas-turbine engines for these ships from Ukraine, one of the two major suppliers of such engines. The other one is the United States. The 2014 sanctions on Russia also meant that Russia could no longer buy gas-turbine powerplants for warships or some of the helicopter engines Ukraine had long specialized in. Ukraine also supplied Turkey with tank engines it could no longer get from other NATO members. Turkey is a major Black Sea power and now it is on better terms with Ukraine than Russia. Two of the post 1991-NATO members, Romania and Bulgaria, also have Black Sea coastlines. Turkey also has one of the few combat-experienced UAVs, the TB2. This UAV is similar to the American Predator of the late 1990s, and to earlier Israeli designs the Americans based Predator on. The Americans were also the first to equip large UAVs with satellite communications and lightweight missiles (Hellfire) originally designed for helicopter gunships. Israel didn’t arm its UAVs or use satellite comms because it used them locally for surveillance and was able to call in F-16s or helicopter gunships or use artillery to hit targets that needed immediate attention. China and Turkey adopted the American version of armed UAVs, unlike Russia which has been slow to catch up in this area.

Ukraine wanted armed UAVs which the Americans and Chinese were reluctant to provide because of Russian irritation over such trade. The Turks needed what Ukraine had and defied Russia once more, as it had done for centuries. Ukraine first ordered TB2s for its army in 2019 and these began arriving in early 2021 and have been used for surveillance. Russia appears reluctant to attack the unarmed TB2s but will probably go after the armed versions if they are used against Russian forces in Donbas or anywhere else. Ukraine has lots of artillery for targets in Donbas but needs the TB2s to get the precise location of targets. That the unarmed TB2 can do using its laser rangefinder and GPS navigation system. For all practical purposes the TB2s are helping keep the peace in Donbas because if Russia escalates their ceasefire violations too much the Ukrainians can respond with much more accurate artillery fire.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is rebuilding its navy with the help of Turkey, the United States and other NATO nations. Most of the Ukrainian navy was lost when Russia seized Crimea in early 2014 and had to rebuild its fleet. Now a lot of those new warships will be made in Turkey as well as TB2s for maritime patrol. Black Sea politics was always like that, unpredictable and often violent.

 


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