Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived blitzkrieg in Ukraine has failed thanks, first and foremost, to the guts of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. British and US-supplied anti-tank weapons have played a crucial role, too. But it’s Ukraine’s Turkish–made TB2 Bayraktar drones that have been the war’s most unexpectedly effective weapon. Unexpected not just because of their battlefield killing power but because the father-in-law of the TB2’s inventor and manufacturer is Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the only European leader to have once described himself as a friend of Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan, with a foot in the East and West, has emerged as the war’s key power-broker – and his loyalty is being actively courted by both Moscow and Washington. At this week’s Nato summit, the US will seek to persuade Turkey’s strongman leader to give the Russian-made S400 air defence system – bought from Putin in 2017 – to Ukraine. In exchange, Turkey would receive US patriot missiles and return to America’s F-35 fighter programme from which they were excluded as punishment for the S400 deal. Though likely to be a step too far for the Turks, the idea has already been floated in Ankara by US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman. After years of friction between Erdogan and his Nato allies over everything from Turkey’s military ties to Russia, the refugee crisis and Syria, Washington now badly needs to reunite the Nato family against Russia.
So far, Erdogan has hedged his strategic bets. Ankara has not joined in Washington- and Brussels-led economic sanctions on Putin, and Turkish airspace remains open to Russian traffic. At the same time, however, Erdogan has invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention that allows Turkey to close the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles Strait to Russian battleships ‘in time of war’, which has eased Nato concerns about where Turkey’s real loyalties lie.