Décrypter pour comprendre

Turkey in the search for new partners: New strategic priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean

Arnaud Peyronnet, FMES associate member of the Strategic Monitoring Centre for the Mediterranean and the Middle East (OS2MO)

Turkey is energetically working at drawing closer to Ukraine and the United Kingdom to counter Russia’s influence in its approaches, a tack which is arousing interest amongst the most Atlanticist European countries. In this context the Turkish defence industry has become a powerful international asset, thanks in particular to the country’s military successes in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus.  These new alliances in the making and the heightened visibility accruing from the Russo-Turkish geopolitical opposition might permit Ankara to get closer to Washington and to isolate a bit more those European countries that stood up for Greece in its contentious relations with Turkey in the Mediterranean. For its part, Athens is drawing closer to Israel and the United Arab Emirates. New fault lines are therefore appearing in the geopolitical tectonic plates of the Eastern Mediterranean that oppose three types of actors: Russia, an opportunist Turkish-Atlanticist axis and a profoundly anti-Turk axis.

The Eastern Mediterranean, caught in the midst of a growing geopolitical confrontation between Turkey and Greece but also one between Turkey and Russia, has become the stage for new strategic agreements that open the door to new actors. Turkey, which is seeking to find a counterbalance to Russia on its northern flank, is therefore approaching Ukraine, automatically invoking the support of the most Atlanticist European countries, in particular the United Kingdom, whose outlooks are heavily influenced by the Russian threat. For Ankara, this agreement with Kyiv, and possibly later with Great Britain, could allow it to access both resources and opportunities for its defence industries. This particularly applies to its UAV strike force which has proved to be one of the keys for the projection of Turkish power while at the same time being a significant agent for industrial integration with foreign partners.  

On the opposite hand, Greece and Cyprus have strengthened their association with an anti-Turkish, pro-American axis. Both countries have signed major collaborations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, doubtless also with the intention of gaining favour with the United States, taking advantage of a period of palpable tension between the US and Turkey, and thus putting a brake on any attempts by Ankara to make moves towards the new Biden administration. For Greece, these recently signed agreements allow it to tie the UAE, and to a lesser extent Israel, into the defence of Greek territory which has been challenged in recent years by Turkish claims in the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

A fast developing Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation

Turkey has been subject to an increasing isolation, as much with regard to the EU as to the US, while Ankara has entered into a struggle for regional influence with Russia that encompasses Syria, Libya and the Caucasus. It seems to have come to the firm decision to draw closer to Ukraine thus allowing it to counter Russia, this time in the Black Sea, an area Moscow considers to be its own. In February 2020 the first approaches were made between the two governments and the following August a memorandum of cooperation was concluded between the Ukrainian ministry for strategic industries and Turkey’s national defence industries agency, which was then signed by the Ukrainian president on 16 October 2020 during an official visit to Turkey. This memorandum of cooperation was aimed at the exchange of resources and of technological know-how[1] between the two countries. Ukraine has also agreed to an exchange of space technology with the Turkish company Roketsan[2]. The agreement was announced by the head of the Turkish space agency on 4 December 2020, stipulating that this cooperation concerned the common development of new technologies, the manufacture of satellites and space launch vehicles[3].

Ankara is also looking to purchase AN-178 transport aircraft from Ukraine and would like to develop common programmes for long range UAVs and cruise missiles with Kyiv. In exchange Turkey is understood to have sold Atmaca anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, and also communications and surveillance systems manufactured by the company Aselsan. On the naval front, Turkey is selling Ukraine 4 Ada classcorvettes (a contract worth $1 billion), along with Bayraktar unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) according to a bilateral agreement reached on 15 December 2020 by the Ukrainian defence minister and the Turkish national arms agency[4].

This rapprochement also has an economic dimension, even more important during this period of crisis[5], with the leaders of both countries hoping to progress the value of trade between them from $5 billion in 2019 to 20 billion over the next few years. On top of all this, Turkey remains an important tourist destination for Ukrainian citizens (1.5 million tourists in 2019). The negotiations to conclude a free-trade agreement, started in 2012, are also to be accelerated.

On the political level, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, welcomed the Turkish president to the Ukrainian capital in February 2020, before himself travelling to Turkey in August and again in October 2020. Turkey is supporting the Ukrainian army in its dispute with Russia over the Donbass and Crimea, becoming as such a very important partner for Ukraine. During a trip to Turkey on 2 December 2020, the Ukrainian foreign minister declared that “his country expected that Turkey would have a major role to play in the settlement of the conflict in Crimea”[6]. This situation is in keeping with NATO’s view, which wishes to increase its presence in the Black Sea. It also allows Ankara to exercise a certain pressure on Moscow, replying to Russian anti-Turk agitation, be that in Syria, Libya or in the Caucasus.

Turkish UAVs as a tool for regional integration

The full importance of the Turkish-Ukrainian partnership is to be seen in the field of drone warfare. In fact, a first agreement had already been signed by Ukraine back in 2018 for the purchase of 12 Turkish Bayraktar TB2 strike drones[7] and around 200 associated munitions for the system (a contract of $69 million). In October 2020, the director of the Ukrainian state-owned arms trading company Ukrspecexportannounced its intention to buy a new batch of 12 Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2021, with the potential to produce 36 more units under licence in Ukraine[8].

The UAV sector would therefore become an area of major effort and cooperation between the two countries, with Ankara estimating that the projects undertaken in common between the Turkish drone manufacturer, Bayraktar Baykar Makina, and the Ukrainian company Ukrspecexport, would be able to resolve some of the problems the Turkish defence industry has with the production of propulsion systems[9]. Turkey had already imported a dozen Ivchenko-Progress AI-450C motors from Ukraine for the future Akinci drone[10],confirming that Ankara needs Kyiv to successfully continue its future UAV programmes. The role of this new type of armed drone, high endurance (24 hours, with a range of 600-800 km [320-500 miles]) and able to operate at high altitude (more than 12,000 metres [39,000 feet]) is to make up for Turkey’s non-participation in the F-35 programme, indeed, even to suggest alternative solutions to the Turkish defence industry’s clients. If Turkish UAVs, used in huge quantities in Syria, Libya, Iraq and in the Caucasus, demonstrated their great effectiveness in support of ground operations, so the partnership with Ukrainian manufacturers of propulsion systems has become essential for Turkey. Indeed, for want of other industrial alternatives regarding the production of propulsion systems, this collaboration with Ukrainian aviation companies is vital for Ankara if it is to continue its ambitious drone programme in the long term.

A Turkish-Ukrainian collaboration that allows Turkey to move closer to the West

Ankara could, via Ukraine, take advantage of some interesting opportunities for its arms industry, currently suffering from sanctions. Since Ukraine is expecting a more substantial American support from the new US administration, Turkey hopes to obtain the same advantages through its timely support for Kyiv against Russia, and thus to attract President Joe Biden’s good graces in raising the sanctions that are so problematic for the Turkish armed forces. In 2019 the United States decided to exclude Turkey from the F-35 programme because of its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system (penalising Ankara under CAATSA[11]). On 14 December 2020, the head of the American diplomatic service put sanctions in place against the agency responsible for the acquisition of arms for the Turkish armed forces; Washington henceforth prohibited all export permits to Turkish defence industry companies, a stance rapidly copied by Canada (which supplies components for UAVs). These sanctions affect the Turkish air force in particular, essentially composed as it is of aging American aircraft (F-16 and F-4 fighters, Bell UH-1 and Sikorski S-70 helicopters) whose maintenance in consequence now risks becoming difficult. The Turkish navy, composed in large part of old US ships (including 8 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates) themselves equipped with US weapons, could be hurt by these sanctions. Some components of the ground forces (above all, artillery and tanks) also risk being affected in the long term, considering that these are already suffering from restrictions imposed by certain European countries, Germany amongst them[12].

Through this Turkish-Ukrainian rapprochement Turkey could also look to win favour with the European countries of NATO’s eastern flank who perceive Russia’s threat as being much more important than Turkish activism in the Mediterranean[13]. In this concern, Turkey could find opportunities for a rapprochement with the United Kingdom which is closely involved with Kyiv.

The British and Ukrainian defence ministers in fact signed a letter of intent in October 2020 that dealt with the delivery of British military equipment to Ukraine, the joint production of certain equipment and the construction of infrastructure for the Ukrainian navy, amounting to an estimated $1.6 billion[14]. Eight missile patrol boats could also be developed jointly, of which 6 would be constructed in Ukraine. In October 2020 both countries had already signed a political and economic cooperation agreement that reaffirmed their desire to “work together to counter Russia’s hostile influence” in eastern Europe[15].

The United Kingdom, in its post-Brexit strategy, is aiming to accelerate the conclusion of commercial and industrial agreements with non-member countries of the EU. After Ukraine, Turkey could be a long-term objective for London. In any case, both countries announced the signing of a customs agreement at the end of December 2020, in the hope reaching a comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement in the longer term. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the agreement as “The most important since the agreement for a customs union with the EU” signed in 1995[16]. Turkey would like to extend these links with the United Kingdom even further, particularly in the area of drone technology with a view to potential exports to the British Isles. On top of this, Turkey has approached the United Kingdom about acquiring a second-hand aircraft carrier and for technical support in the construction of modern ships of this kind[17]. Finally, the United Kingdom has the advantage, from Ankara’s point of view, of having left the EU and above all of being one of the powerful ‘guarantors’[18] of the constitutional order in Cyprus. London, through both its presence and its influence on the island of Cyprus[19], could thus represent a major political counterbalance to the EU and Athens in regard to the Cypriot question. In the best-case scenario Turkey would gain an ally, in the worst case a partisan of the status quo, which could favour the Turkish narrative and, de facto, marginalise European influence on the island. The current Turkish-British rapprochement is therefore, when seen through Ankara’s eyes, without doubt linked to the Cypriot question and to tensions with the EU.

Geopolitical rapprochement between Greece and the UAE

Greece hasn’t remained inactive on its side of the fence[20]. Sharing a common opposition to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman policies, even if for different reasons[21], Athens and Abu Dhabi have over the last few months increased their signs of rapprochement. Over the summer of 2020, at the height of the maritime crisis between Athens and Ankara, the UAE deployed four F-16 fighters to the Souda air base in Crete, on the pretext of joint air exercise with the Hellenic Air Force. The Emirati air force had already trained in Greece in previous years as part of multi-national exercises such as Inochios, which also involved Israel. On this occasion the deployment was on a strictly bi-lateral basis, a clear signal of support from Abu Dhabi for Greece in its conflict with Turkey. This rapprochement was sealed by the signing in November 2020 of a bilateral agreement strengthening military cooperation between the two countries, in tandem with a strategic partnership that includes the foreign policy of both states. In a joint declaration published as the partnership was signed the leaders of both countries condemned “Turkey’s violation of Greece and Cyprus’ sovereignty and their sovereign rights, as well as its overall aggressive behaviour in the Middle East, in the Eastern Mediterranean and the South Caucasus, in flagrant violation of international law”[22]. In addition, a “clause of mutual assistance in defence” could be “activated in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of either of the two countries”[23], just as provision was made for the temporary stationing, if necessary, of troops in both countries[24] along with an exchange of intelligence[25]. The two countries wish to set up a training centre at the Greek air base of Avlona, linked with a maintenance centre for F-16s[26]. Lastly, at the start of December 2020,10 days after the alliance was concluded the UAE took part with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France in the naval exercise Médusa-10 off the coast of Alexandria, reinforcing once again the consolidation of this new alliance in the Mediterranean.

On 12 Janvier 2021, it was Cyprus’ turn to sign an agreement of military cooperation with the UAE[27], Nicosia already having undertakings of this kind with Egypt and Israel, not to mention those with Greece. This agreement provides for military exercises and training programmes, confirming Abu Dhabi’s wish to ally itself in the Mediterranean with states who are opposed to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman policies. These agreements could in addition reflect the UAE’s wish to project its presence regularly beside its allies in the Mediterranean.

A Greek desire to move closer to the Israeli-US axis

Greece has also strengthened its ties with Israel[28] after the conclusion on 4 January 2021 of an agreement for $1.68 billion over 20 years with the Israeli company Elbit for the creation and development of a pilot training school at the Greek airbase of Kalamata. Under the agreement, the Israeli company will equip 10 Italian M-346 trainers and supply simulators to ensure that initial pilot training for Greek fighter pilots will be similar to that of their Israeli counterparts. Both countries had already moved significantly closer in 2020 with the purchase by Greece of two Israeli Heron maritime surveillance drones and their joint commitment to the construction of a new class of corvettes that answers the needs of both countries[29].

Greece has also multiplied its attempts at a rapprochement with Washington, taking advantage of America’s desire to counter Russian influence in the region. The Pentagon has thus announced its renewed interest in several Greek bases, such as the one in Souda Bay which is already used by the US navy, but which is due to have an American Expeditionary Sea Base ship permanently stationed there[30], and the air base at Larissa which could accommodate MALE drones [31]. The Stefanovikeio air base and the port of Alexandroupolis, near the Dardanelles straits, would also be attractive to Washington[32]. To complement this, Athens has dangled the prospect of arms contracts in front of Washington, particularly for aircraft (20 F-35s) and ships (4 Multi-Mission Surface Combatant frigates, the upgrading of the 4 Meko class frigates and the purchase of 4 MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopters. Most of all Greece would like to purchase the F-35 stealth fighter as Israel has already done, and perhaps the UAE will soon also do[33], thus improving interoperability with its new allies in “Club F-35” and aligning itself closely with Washington, even as Turkey has been excluded from the programme.

The strengthening of military cooperation between the United States and Cyprus was announced by Washington at the start of July 2020, confirming the raising of the American embargo that had been in place since 1987[34]. This cooperation is aimed above all at the training of personnel, before any possible delivery of US arms to the Nicosia government. This American support, based around the Athens-Nicosia-Jerusalem axis, is not aiming at Turkey per se but has a goal, as the Americans see it, of countering Russian and Chinese influence in the region, and encouraging stability in the Eastern Mediterranean[35], in particular in relation to the EastMed pipeline project.

Some of the United States’ allies believe that Turkey’s excessive ambitions represent the principal factor liable to lead to a crisis in the region. This topic is not going to go away, as proved once again in March 2021 when Turkey warned Greece, Israel and the EU that they would need its authorisation for any work carried out on the continental shelf claimed by Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean[36].

* * *

Turkey seems, for the moment, to be in a favourable place with promising economic alliances with Ukraine and the United Kingdom, even as Ankara, in great economic difficulty, seeks to renew its links with both the EU and the new US administration. For this reason, it is probable that over the next few months Turkey will look to put the Mediterranean on the back burner and promote itself as a ‘model’ NATO ally, even if it means resetting its efforts in Syria, Iraq or the Caucasus, claimed by those who are close to President Erdogan as belonging to ‘Greater Turkey’. As for Greece, the year 2021 will certainly provide the chance to consolidate alliances formed in 2020 as at the same time it seeks a lasting rapprochement with Washington.

New geopolitical axes in the Eastern Mediterranean