TB2s in Eastern European Skies: Not a Game-Changer but a signal for Future Security Architecture

Zakir Rzazade

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2s have arrived and continue to arrive in countries in Eastern Europe like Ukraine and Poland, boosting perceptions that the deterrence capabilities are being furthered, based on the success of this armed drone against Russian-made air defence systems in the past. Although such an assessment may be premature, this bilateral cooperation with Turkey in the region signals a possible path for future security configurations in the region considering the “security deficit” of the EU policies in the Eastern Neighbourhood.

Brussels (Brussels Morning) After its successful deployment in Libya, Syria and Nagorno Karabakh, the new theatre of operation for the Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Bayraktar TB2 is Eastern Europe. As a result of growing cooperation in the military-technical sector with Turkey, Ukraine was the first to procure TB2 UAVs in 2019 and again from October 2020. The deputy head of the Ukrainian Parliament’s defence committee, Yuriy Mysyagin, noted that the TB2 will serve as a deterrent vis-a-vis Russia, referring to the success of weapons during the Second Karabakh War in 2020. 

Poland followed Ukraine’s lead and is set to receive 24 armed drones from Turkey, becoming the first NATO country to purchase the TB2. Another country with security concerns towards Russia, Latvia, hinted of its interest to be the second in June 2021. 

At first glance, the procurement of this class of weapons appears to be the right strategic and tactical choice in Eastern Europe, for countries like Ukraine and Poland, looking to bolster their conventional deterrence capability vis-a-vis Russia. After all, the TB2 system was tried specifically against Russian-made air defense systems like Pantsir and S300 in Libya, Syria and Nagorno Karabakh. 

However, it would be appropriate to step back to see if the comparison between Russian-made air defence systems and Russia’s own integrated air defence system (IADS) is the right one to consider relating to the advantages of TB2 in the region, in terms of deterrence potential.  This is especially important considering that IADS is far more complex than a single surface-to-air missile system (SAM), which is not configured and networked within a multilayered system.

Let’s be sceptical: TB2s have yet to see a real test

It is fair to be at least sceptical when comparing the achievements of TB2s in Syria, Libya and Karabakh with its potential effect on the military balance and deterrence calculations in Eastern Europe regarding Russia. To begin with, these armed drones have hardly never confronted capable air defence systems that are optimised to neutralise and address threats from small armed drones. 

At this point, it is important to distinguish between single SAMs and modern IADS, the latter being in the arsenal of great powers like Russia and China, as opposed to small-to-middle powers like ones that TB2s have generally engaged with. A modern IADS is more sophisticated in outlook and makeup than single air defence units (like S400 or Pantsir alone) deployed with their associated command vehicles and radars. It is a common mistake to discuss the effectiveness of air defence based only on the ranges that SAM systems are capable of delivering missiles. Those SAMs are usually deployed as part of larger multi-layered IADS which are supported and integrated with multiple types of ground-based radars, electronic warfare (EW), defensive air force missions, space-based capabilities and so on. 

Moreover, TB2s tested in the Middle East did not confront such capable, integrated systems apart from the problems related to inexperienced crews and the claims on less developed versions of Pantsir that were operating in Syria and Libya. Furthermore, the losses of TB2s were often underreported or altogether ignored. 

In Karabakh, Armenia lacked a modern IADS and its SAM systems comprised of old Soviet systems like the 2K11 Krug, 9K33 Osa, 2K12 Kub, and 9K35 Strela-10. Larger air defences like S-300 that were not optimised to detect small targets, such as drones. Therefore, it is important not to generalise about TB2s’ experience in these theatres of war and make assumptions that they would be equally successful against sophisticated adversaries like Russia, which have capable IADS at their disposal, including automated C2 and EW systems configured towards Eastern Europe. As Russia continues to develop counter-drone capabilities day by day, there should appear more scope for scepticism.

Why is Turkey keen to export drones to Eastern Europe?

Although the TB2s sold to Ukraine or Poland would not alter the offense-defence balance and deterrent capabilities towards Russia, it is important to examine what motivates these arms deals and what these would entail for the region.

This is because Turkey’s eagerness in military-defence cooperation with the mentioned countries signals a possible security configuration involving the West that would limit the influence of Russia in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea regions. Before coming to that point, it is appropriate to lay out the reasons for Turkey’s motivation to stand against Russia in the region, a stance that overlaps with European security concerns as well.

First off, despite the flexibility of the Turkey-Russia mechanism for finding common ground on other fronts, the Black Sea region still remains a hotspot for Turkey as it sees the former as a potential security threat. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, which ended Turkish naval primacy in the Black Sea, made security concerns particularly salient since Russian air defence and anti-ship missiles can cover nearly the whole marine domain. 

Following that, Turkey also supported the NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia. Hence, from a more structural perspective, we can read the sales of armed drones to Ukraine and Poland in relation to Turkey’s security perceptions in the Black Sea and wider Eastern Europe region.

Secondly, the AKP government needs the West in light of the economic crisis and the party’s declining domestic appeal. Recently, a change in the tone towards the EU can be observed in the light of Turkey’s need for financial assistance and a vote of confidence in its economy to counterbalance the economic pressure exacerbated by the pandemic. Relatedly, Turkish support for Ukraine during the latest crisis can be seen as an attempt to regain strategic significance for the West and NATO, particularly following the advent of the Biden administration.

Finally, the needs of the Turkish defence industry also dictate more flexibility in this regard. The sanctions on Turkey after the purchase of the S400 SAM system from Russia and removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter consortium have put the defence and military in alarming conditions. Furthermore, on a technical level, the bilateral agreement between Turkey and Ukraine entailing the transfer of Ukrainian engine technology that the former lacks demonstrates the effects of the impulses of the Turkish defence industry on its own foreign policy. 

An opportunity to reduce the “security deficit” in the Eastern Neighborhood?

It has become commonplace to argue that the EU has a security deficit, especially on hard security matters in its Eastern Neighbourhood policy. This was evident by its inaction or ineffectiveness during the Second Karabakh War, as well as the latest crisis in Ukraine.  Despite the latest, more “geopolitical” EU, focusing on a “reinforcing resilience” agenda, the processes have shown the opposite, delegating the hard security issues to the US against the backdrop of changing geopolitical conditions in the region. 

The sale of TB2s to Eastern Europe is not likely to be a game-changer in the region’s deterrence capability vis-à-vis Russia, but can show a way ahead in terms of a more resilient region in facing Russia, reducing the security deficit of the EU noted above. Of course, realisation of such a prospect will depend to a great extent on the choices of both the West and Turkey.

In this regard, the idea of a security compact was put forward recently, aiming to build strategic security partnerships between a few third party countries and the bloc. This vision argues in favour of finding new partnership options in the wider European neighbourhood in the realms of security, defence and military, which in turn would serve the more geopolitical and assertive EU policy direction. 

Based on that, Turkey could be a realistic option considering its close relationship with some EaP countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan and also, its recent military engagement around the sales of armed drones and in general, defence cooperation. Such partnership would contribute to the goal of a stronger EU in the Eastern Neighbourhood and that of decreasing the influence of Russia in the region. 

Relatedly, another issue often discussed in this respect lately is the revitalisation of the GUAM Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development with Turkish involvement in the region. GUAM, composed of four countries from EaP, namely Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, was established to strengthen democratic values, regional security, ensure sustainable development and deepen European integration with common security space. Despite rejections, it is thought to be a balancing force against Russian influence in the region. 

With Turkish support and Western willingness, the value and influence of this organisation could be more significant. Turkey’s leadership idea in the organisation is not a new aspiration, but it would require the ability of the West to compartmentalise relations with Turkey to bolster regional security.

Apart from Turkey’s military and defence engagement in the region and its expertise and potential in helping to develop deterrent capabilities for members of GUAM and the Eastern Neighbourhood in general, the EU also has tools at its disposal that would be corresponding. 

Within the EU, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework and its various programmes can be utilized towards the EaP countries in security-defence realms. For instance, PESCO’s Military Mobility framework that “aims to enable the unhindered movement of military personnel and assets within the borders of the EU”, already engages non-EU countries such as Canada, Norway, and the United States. Turkey has also reportedly applied for membership. The same argument could apply to the European Defence Fund.  

In case of utilisation, these institutions can be helpful in formation and maintenance of common security approach and infrastructure within the Eastern Neighbourhood in coordination with the non-bloc regional powers like Turkey.

Despite internal disagreements and reluctance of some EU member states towards enlargement based on the argument that it antagonises Russia, security should not be seen strictly only as an issue of enlargement, but as part of general strategy in building resilience against destabilising influences within the neighbourhood. Furthermore, such reluctance allows Russia to exploit the power vacuum and push its advantage across hard security issues, undermining EU efforts in other spheres too. 

A security compact with Turkey that involves EaP countries could also support the EU’s strategic autonomy idea in the region. From this perspective, the EU’s long-drawn-out reliance on NATO and the US in its security and defence policies can be tamed at least in one front, increasing the capacity in forming a united stance as a strategic actor.

Therefore, for more assertive and influential EU policy in the Eastern Neighborhood, special arrangements and security configurations can be established, for which an opportunity seems visible in the context of Turkey’s military cooperation with regional countries and its overlapping interests with the West in the Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region.

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Zakir Rzazade is a contributing analyst at European Security Journal. He is currently a master's student of Conflict and Democracy Studies at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. His research focus includes international security, conflicts, war studies and areas of South Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Turkey.