Brief n.9, January 2021

One of the most important events of 2020 in Turkish foreign policy was the war in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and the unrecognized republic of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh. After Turkey supported Azerbaijan in its military operation, providing technical and probably direct military assistance, it became clear that Turkey has entered a new phase of active foreign policy - using elements of diplomacy and military intervention to achieve its goals.

The Caucasus has been Russia's sphere of influence for the last two hundred years. However, the situation has changed over the past twenty years. As the results of the Karabakh conflict demonstrates, Turkey has declared itself an important geopolitical player in the region.

Russia and Turkey

For the past five years, Russian –Turkish relations went through different phases. In 2015, following the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M jet by Turkey in the Turkish-Syrian border area, bi-lateral relations between Russian and Turkey hit a low point. Russia reacted by introducing embargo on Turkish goods and services. Russia also accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of being involved in and profiting from ISIS' illegal oil trade. Later the embargo was lifted and the Erdogan-ISIS tale was forgotten. Russian – Turkish relations improved. In 2016, Russian military intelligence allegedly warned Ergdogan of the coming military coup – this warning allegedly saved Erdogan from imminent arrest.(1)

In 2017 Turkey announced that it is purchasing the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. However, despite the improved relations, certain zones of conflicts remained, particularly in Syria and in Libya. At the same time, as recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrate, both countries can act as rivals in some areas and become tactical allies in others.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh began on September 27 2020 and ended on November 20 in a cease-fire brokered by Russia. The army of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)(2) and Armenia suffered crushing defeat. Under the agreements, Russian peacekeepers will be deployed in the territory recaptured from Artsakh by Azerbaijan, and joint Russian-Turkish military monitoring centers will be set up to monitor the cease-fire.

What is peculiar about this conflict is that Russia, despite its intelligence capabilities, never provided Armenia with any warning about the impeding Azerbaijani attack or its preparation. Disposing numerous ways of collecting intelligence (including but not limited to military listening installations in Syria and Armenia), Russia was in the position to monitor military communications both in Turkey and in Azerbaijan. This is precisely how Russia learned about the immanence of a military coup in Turkey. However, unlike tipping Erdogan about the 2016 coup, this time Russia remained silent. Both Russia and Armenia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB) and as such supposed to share intelligence. One plausible explanation of why Russia remained silent about the Azerbaijani and Turkish war plans, and later a passive observer of the conflict, is that Russia wanted to use the Azerbaijani attack on Nagorno-Karabakh to get rid of the Armenia pro-Western prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, Cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabach led to a serious political crisis in Armenia, calling into question Pashinyan’s political future.

Turkey clearly came on the winning side of the conflict: it reassured its role as a leading regional powerbroker, able to formulate and implement its foreign policy objectives outside of NATO alliance through direct involvement or by using proxy powers. It humiliated and wrecked political havoc in Armenia, its historical enemy, and turned Azerbaijan, member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, heir to the USSR) into its leading military ally. It also sent a clear signal to Russia that it has its own geopolitical ambitions in the region that Russia must reckon with.

Turkish military technology

Azerbaijan's victory in the last Karabakh war was achieved through the use of the latest Turkish military technology, namely drones. Turkey started to develop and manufacture military drones (UAV) after the U.S. in 2011 refused to sell its ally high-tech weapons, including UAVs and surface-to-air missile systems. Fifteen years ago, Turkey was importing about 80% of weapons, producing itself only 20%. Today that ratio has changed dramatically, the numbers have reversed. The Bayraktar and Anka drones were developed to replace the American Predator UAVs; the Patriot air defense systems were replaced by the Russian S-400. At the same time, Turkey has been strenuously promoting the development of its own air defense complex known as Hisar. Some of the Hisar elements have already been put into service, and Turkish military engineers announced the production of systems similar in functionality to the S-400 in the near future. Turkey has also reported to start the production of unmanned mini-tanks, helicopters and boats.

Development of the Bayraktar began in 2007 and relied on American and Israeli technology. Already in 2016-2017 Bayraktar TB2 drones were actively used against Syrian Kurds ("Euphrates Shield" in 2017 and "Olive Branch" in 2018). However, when confronted with the regular Syrian air defense in 2020, the effectiveness of the UAVs decreased dramatically. At the current level of its development, a drone is a "miracle weapon" only when the enemy has no serious air defense capabilities.

TB2 drones estimated to cost around $1 to $2 million each, which is much cheaper than $20 million per drone made by US drone manufacturer General Atomics. The TB2 drones have an operating range of up to 150km, and are able to stay airborne for up to 24 hours. Turkey relies on TB2 drones in fighting Kurdish opposition both inside and outside the country and in Libya, where Turkey backs the Government of National Accord in its war against Khalifa Haftar.

In December 2020 Ben Wallace, the UK defense secretary, said that Turkish TB2 drones were an example of how other countries were now “leading the way”.

Turkey and Ukraine

In 2020 Turkey was actively engaged in developing bilateral relations with Ukraine. Turkey is a country that does not recognize the new status of Crimea and maintains close ties with the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Ukraine. The importance of the Turkish vector for Ukraine was evident in the appointment of Emina Djaparova, an ethnic Crimean Tatar who speaks Turkish, as first deputy foreign minister. For Turkey, Ukraine is an important market for consumer goods. Ukranian tourists is another source of revenue for Turkey: over 1,5 million Ukranian tourists visited Turkey in 2019. Turkey on the other hand, imports steel, iron, cereals and grain from Ukraine. Since 2020 Ukraine also trains Turkish nuclear specialists at the Kyiv Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute.

Ukraine eyes Turkish military technology for solving its long-standing conflicts with Russia. It has long-term projects to cooperate with Turkey on producing new generations of combat drones. In 2019, Ukraine purchased 12 Bayraktar TB2 drones from Baykar Makina. The drones can be armed with laser-guided missiles, such as the Turkis- made Roketsan-made MAM-L missiles. Six more Bayraktar TB2s would be delivered to Ukraine within a year. Turkey also delivered three drone ground-control stations. Kyiv plans to purchase up to 48 Bayraktar Tactical Block 2 (TB2) combat drones. Some of the drones may be manufactured jointly by Turkey and Ukraine.

It is unlikely that Turkey would want to associate itself in any way with any Ukrainian military action against the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, although Turkish UAVs are purchased with no other purpose.

Turkey and Pakistan

The effective use of Turkish drones and Turkey's military involvement on the side of Azerbaijan in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has prompted Indian and Greek military experts to talk about Erdogan's new goal: the Kashmir conflict. Indeed, the Kashmir problem, along with the situation in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and the Gaza Strip, is regularly raised both in the Turkish media and in official rhetoric. Pakistan, along with Qatar and Azerbaijan, is positioned as a close ally of Turkey. Interestingly, the slogan "two states, one nation," originally used only in relation to Azerbaijan, has also been displayed in the streets of Pakistan and Qatar's capitals during recent high-level visits. Whereas with regard to Azerbaijan it refers to a really ethnically close people, with regard to the other two countries it can be understood exclusively in terms of pan-Islamic vision. In practical terms it means that in the event of another round of Indo-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir, Turkey may provide military and technical assistance to Pakistan.

Turkey and Qatar

Qatar is currently Turkey's most important partner in the region. The Qataris provided significant financial assistance to Turkey during the most acute period of economic crisis related to the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020. Qatar is also actively investing in Turkish economy, including military industries. Turkey has a military base in Qatar (Tariq ibn Ziyad base). The base was opened in 2015 and since 2017 it is known as Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command. The base is viewed as Qatar's important security guarantor.

Turkey and Israel

The Palestinian issue is one of the most important topics of Turkey's foreign policy rhetoric. Turkey's once very close ties with Israel were practically severed in 2010 after the Mavi Marmara incident.(3) Turkey strongly condemns the process of "reconciliation" of a number of Muslim countries with Israel launched by the Trump administration. President Aliyev's recent initiative to reconcile Turkey and Israel was politely rebuffed by Erdogan, pointing to the Palestinian problem as a "red line" for Turkey. The "just solution to the Jerusalem issue" has to be recognized as a striking element of Turkey's official rhetoric. On 25 Dec 2020 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey would like to have better ties with Israel and that talks at intelligence level continue between the two sides. At the same time he has called Israeli policy towards Palestinians “unacceptable”.


Another important direction of Turkey's foreign policy is the strategic alliance of Turkic states, expressed in various organizational forms, from the Turkic Council (Türk Dili Konuşan Ülkeler İşbirliği Konseyi) to TÜRKSOY (The International Organization of Turkic Culture), which operate at different levels, from interstate to municipal.

During the first period of the Justice and Development Party's rule, the Pan-Turkic message was not so important. In recent years, due to the fact that R.T. Erdogan's party is forced to act in close alliance with the Nationalist Action Party, the Turkic issue has again become one of the most important for Turkey.

Suffice to say that in 2020 the Turkish Armed Forces officially celebrated 2229 years since it is believed that they were founded by none other than Mode (or Mete) Khan, who led the Hunnu state in 209 BC. The presidential coat of arms (Turkey has no national emblem) exhibits 16 stars symbolizing 16 historical Turkic empires, which the modern Republic of Turkey believes to be the heir.

The ideas of Pan-Turkism are not new, they were actively promoted by Enver Pasha (military minister of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War). Today, however, Erdogan clearly has the opportunity to build a new strategy to promote this project.

  1. According to a "semi-official" Iranian news agency Fars and a Russian state agency TASS. Kremlin did not deny the report.
  2. An unrecognized breakaway state with an Armenian ethnic majority that came into existence in 1994, following the first Karabakh war.
  3. On the night of May 30-31, 2010, the Israeli navy stopped in neutral waters the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip. The Israeli commando team was resisted by the passengers of the Mavi Marmara. As a result of the ensuing confrontation 9 passengers were killed and 30 were injured. Between 10-15 Israeli soldiers were also wounded.
  4. An international organization uniting modern Turkic states, whose main goal is to develop a comprehensive cooperation among its member states. The Turkic Council was established on October 3, 2009 in Nakhichevan.
  5. Turkey considers itself to be the successor of 16 empires: The Great Empire of the Huns, the Western Empire of the Huns, the European Empire of the Huns, the Empire of the White Huns, the Empire of the Sky Blue Turks, the Empire of the Avar, the Empire of the Khazars, the Uighur State, the Karakhanid State, the Gaznevid State, the Empire of the Great Seljukids, the Khwarezm Shah State, the Golden Horde, the Timurid Empire, the Babur Empire, the Ottoman Empire). Most of the mentioned states are directly related to the territories of the Russian Federation and some CIS countries.