Ukraine’s Turkish drones score victories against Russian military but unlikely to turn the tide

Turkish military drones operated by Ukraine’s armed forces are notching some impressive victories over Russia’s military as the war enters its third day. As Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities come under fire from Russian airstrikes, the drones are operating to slow down their advance as much as possible. 

On Saturday, Ukraine’s embassy in Turkey posted a video that showed what it said was the aftermath of a drone strike on a Russian military convoy near Kherson where forces entered from the Russia-occupied Crimea Peninsula. The footage shows a line of burnt out vehicles with debris strewn about after it came under fire from Turkish-made TB-2 armed drones used by Ukraine’s air force.

 

Later that day, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence posted a second video that said TB-2s rained fire down on Russian paratroopers near Hostomol Airport, a critical cargo airport near Kyiv. Further away, Ukraine’s air force said that the TB-2 was used to destroy an entire fuel train that was attempting to resupply Russian forces operating in the field. 

Ukraine’s use of the TB-2 has been a source of pride for its armed forces but also a poster child of the strong defence ties that define its relationship with Turkey.

Ukraine first acquired an initial batch of six Bayraktar TB-2 drones for $69 million in 2019. This deal was concluded under then-President Petro Poroshenko but Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky’s administration has purchased more of them for a pre-war fleet of approximately 20 TB-2s for Ukraine’s navy and air force. 

The TB-2 has become a symbol of Turkey’s might as a drone power after turning the tide of war in Libya and on behalf of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Turkish-operated TB-2s also blunted a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian government forces in rebel-occupied Idlib after an alleged Russian airstrike left 34 Turkish soldiers dead. 

In each of these theaters, the TB-2 overcame Soviet-era equipment operated by Russia’s allies and manned by less well trained personnel. With these initial successes in Ukrainian service, the TB-2 has notched several more victories against a modern military force with sophisticated anti-aircraft and electronic warfare capabilities.

Russia has been vigorous in its condemnation of Turkey’s sale of combat drones to Ukraine’s military. In April 2021, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Ankara to cease supplying weapons to Kyiv and encouraging “militaristic sentiments”. Later that year, Ukraine deployed the TB-2 for the first time in combat by destroying a separatist artillery piece on October 26. Again, Russia criticised Turkey for “destabilising” the situation in eastern Ukraine by supplying Ukraine. As Western warnings mounted that Russia would invade Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin himself brought up Ukraine’s possession of the TB-2 in a call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a sign of the irritation felt in Moscow. 

But the war remains young and the TB-2 is unlikely to be able to dramatically turn the tide against Russia. The Russian Ministry of Defence has not yet acknowledged the extent of its losses in terms of equipment and manpower, but Ukraine’s government and independent analysts have claimed that hundreds of vehicles have been destroyed on the Russian side and up to 3,000 soldiers were killed. However, Western officials have said Russia has yet to commit more than half of its assembled armed forces near Ukraine to combat and it has relied heavily on air and missile strikes on Ukrainian positions and cities with the support of highly mobile infantry units.

Ukraine has not been without its losses either. A complete casualty figure is not yet available, but the Ukrainian health ministry says that about 198 Ukrainians have been killed in the last 36 hours. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, its forces also destroyed four TB-2s since the fighting began which if true would mean 20 percent of its armed fleet is gone. 

These losses are not easily replaceable for Ukraine at this stage. During Erdogan’s last visit to Kyiv on February 3, it was announced that a factory would be developed to jointly produce TB-2s, but with the beginning of the war, it may be unlikely that more drones will be constructed in time for combat or delivered from Turkey. 

Turkey has strived to maintain its neutrality even as it has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and maintained its support for Ukrainian sovereignty. Zelensky has pushed Erdogan to close the Black Sea to Russian warships, but Turkish officials have yet to commit to doing so. 

The Turkish government has also declined to participate in any sanction regime against Russia though Erdogan has lambasted U.S and European diplomatic efforts as ineffective at helping Ukraine. Compared to its Western partners though, Turkey is uniquely vulnerable to Russian pressure, be it through renewed hostilities in Syria or economic sanctions at a time when Moscow remains the largest supplier of energy to Turkey. 

 

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