Press play to listen to this article
Bowing to the reality that Ukraine won’t join NATO anytime soon, Kyiv is putting in place a collection of smaller security pacts with regional military powers, including Turkey and Poland, as well as the UK, as it seeks help facing down Russia now and in years ahead.
The emerging deals were on display this week, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveling to the Ukrainian capital to send a sharp message to Moscow: His country would help expand Ukraine’s supply of armed, long-range Bayraktar drones — a powerful weapon the Kremlin has warned Kyiv not to use.
The growing cooperation with Turkey is just one element of a broader Kyiv effort to develop smaller security and political pacts, given that Ukraine is facing a lengthy and uncertain path to NATO membership — if it happens at all. The country is also working to cement a new partnership with the UK and Poland, highlighted this week when leaders from the three countries met in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s potential NATO membership is at the heart of the current standoff between Russia and Western allies, with Russia claiming it won’t remove more than 100,000 troops massed along Ukraine’s border until it gets — among other things — a hard guarantee that Ukraine will never join the military alliance.
And while NATO and the US have flatly rejected that demand, the stance has been understood more as a principled defense of NATO’s “open door” policy rather than a concrete encouragement of Ukraine’s membership.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has acknowledged that reality in describing why he is pushing for stronger ties with individual partners. The willingness, in particular, of Poland and Turkey to confront Russia gives Ukraine some reassurance, helping to offset worries in Kyiv that other regional players, including Hungary and Germany, might be too soft on Moscow because of their economic or political interests.
“This new format is part of our strategy of small alliances as a proactive foreign policy of Ukraine,” Kuleba wrote, explaining the initiative. “The point is that we cannot expect safety and prosperity somewhere in the future when we become members of the EU and NATO. We need them today.”
While Russia would defeat Ukraine with its overwhelming military might in any large-scale armed conflict, the Turkish-designed drones have given Kyiv a potent weapon in the now eight-year-long war in the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists continue to occupy swaths of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally complained to Erdoğan about Turkey’s sale of the drones to Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of using the weapon for “destructive” and “provocative activity.”
Similar Turkey-supplied drones were part of the arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, along with mercenaries, that helped Azerbaijan achieve a decisive military victory over Armenia in 2020 — ending a nearly 30-year conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s victory, in which it reclaimed lands recognized as its sovereign territory but long occupied and controlled by Armenia, showed that it was possible to end the long-standing frozen conflicts that Russia has used to its advantage through the former Soviet Union.
Turkey, a member of NATO, has an uneasy relationship with Russia.
The two cooperate in some spheres and disagree sharply in others. Ankara, for instance, has never recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which is home to a large community of Crimean Tatars, who speak a Turkic language and are mostly Muslims with historic ties to Turkey across the Black Sea.
During his visit to Kyiv on Thursday, Erdoğan joined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in reviewing a military honor guard outside the Mariinsky Palace, a ceremonial site for high-level meetings.
The Turkish president led the soldiers, who were armed with rifles, bayonets and swords, in a traditional call-and-response in Ukrainian, shouting the slogan “Glory to Ukraine!”
The soldiers replied: “Glory to the heroes!”
While Zelenskiy and Erdoğan signed a long list of economic and administrative cooperation agreements on Thursday, the announcement that Turkey would help set up a drone factory outside of Kyiv for local manufacturing of the Bayraktar TB2 was a particularly barbed message to the Kremlin.
Erdoğan also repeated his offer to host a meeting of Zelenskiy and Putin in Turkey in an effort to defuse the crisis that has ensued since Russia massed its troops, as well as extensive heavy weaponry and other military assets, along the Ukrainian border.
In a thread on Twitter, posted in English, Erdoğan called for restraint in resolving the current crisis and for respect for international law.
“We keep a close eye on the challenges faced by Ukraine and the tension in the region,” he wrote. “Turkey, as a Black Sea country, calls on all parties to act in restraint and dialogue to maintain peace in the region.”
“It is clear that the conflict must be settled by peaceful means and in accordance with international law,” he added. “Turkey is prepared to contribute to the maintenance of a peaceful and secure environment in its region.”
Joining up with Poland, the UK
Ukraine had also hoped to unveil its new partnership with Poland and the UK this week, but British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tested positive for COVID, forcing her to postpone a trip to Ukraine. Kuleba has said the announcement would still be made soon.
Still, the countries’ leaders promoted the tightening relationship in Kyiv on Tuesday after a joint call between Zelenskiy, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
“The main value is, of course, security in the region,” said Morawiecki, who also met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. “Thanks to security, economic life, trade, and culture can develop. So, we are all interested in this, and such cooperation is a struggle for security in the region.”
Ukraine and Poland already maintain a joint military unit with Lithuania, known as LITPOLUCRBRIGheadquartered in Lublin, Poland.
Small deals vs. NATO membership
Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian foreign ministry, said the current initiatives do not mean Ukraine in any way has given up on joining NATO — a goal now inscribed in the country’s constitution.
“Ukraine recognizes that NATO membership is the process that must be went through,” Nikolenko said. “In the meantime, we create smaller, mobile, flexible and efficient alliances that help us address our needs, including in security, today. Both do not exclude each other, but rather open up broader horizons.”
Yet experts said that bilateral agreements could be more useful for Ukraine in that, unlike with NATO, decisions can be made without the need to achieve unity among 30 allies. Yevgeniya Gaber, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center in Modern Turkish Studies at Carleton University, who is based in Kyiv, said Erdoğan was the latest in a string of world leaders whose personal appearances in the Ukrainian capital could help deter Putin from ordering from an attack.
The Turkish president’s trip, Gaber said, stood apart because of the leader’s concern for Crimean Tatars and his willingness to negotiate directly with Putin.
“The visit of Erdoğan is especially important for us because first they are strategic partners, and they have a specific stance in Russia and a very specific position here in the Black Sea,” Gaber said. As both a NATO member and country with “specific working relations” with Russia, Gaber said, Turkey is “really well-positioned for this kind of shuttle diplomacy,” as well as for “political support, diplomatic support, and also in some terms, military support.”
Gaber said Putin views the Turkish president as a counterpart to be reckoned with.
“He thinks about Erdoğan” differently, she argued. “Turkey is not that, let’s say toxic for Russia, like Washington now [or] like the collective West.”
“There is this psychology that regional ownership in the Black Sea is either for Turkey or for Russia, but not for the kind of external actors somewhere,” Gaber said. And, notably, Erdoğan is willing to use hard power to accomplish his aims. “Turkey can act very decisively,” she added. “We saw that in Syria. We saw that in Libya, plus with Russia.”
Turkey’s own positioning
Turkey said that it is not aiming “to set up an alliance within the alliance” through its current overtures, according to one NATO official.
But Turkey does expect that Erdoğan wants to meet directly with Putin soon.
Turkey has long pursued a complicated dynamic with Russia. While it has annoyed Russia by selling drones to Ukraine, the country has also irked NATO with its purchases of Russian missiles.
Realistically, though, EU diplomats are skeptical that Erdoğan can play a major role with Russia in the Ukraine standoff, since only the US can truly grant what Moscow is seeking — a rolling back of Western influence in Eastern Europe.
What’s really at stake, one senior EU diplomat argued, “is over Erdoğan’s pay grade.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.