Turkey has repeatedly claimed in recent months that the sales of its well-known Bayraktar TB2 drones are from a private company, Baykar, and therefore do not constitute arms sales between the Turkish state and the recipient countries.
On April 8, a high-level Turkish bureaucrat said, according to Reuters, that Russia was once again complaining about Turkey’s sale of TB2 drones to Ukraine. Kyiv’s couple dozen TB2s have exceeded prewar expectations, wreaking havoc on the invading Russian forces, who appear to have failed to shoot down a substantial number of them. Furthermore, Ankara has continued delivering TB2s to Ukraine since the war began on Feb. 24.
The bureaucrat reiterated Turkey’s position that the drone deliveries were made solely by a private Turkish company and did not constitute an official government sale.
“Russians are upset and from time to time they are complaining about the drone sales,” the official said. “They used to complain and they are complaining right now.”
“But we have already given the answer … that these are private companies and these drones purchases had been done before the war as well.”
Indeed that wasn’t the first time Turkey has made such a claim and undoubtedly won’t be the last either. In early March, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kiran also insisted that Ukraine had purchased the drones directly from Baykar, the private company that makes the TB2s, and not directly from the Turkish state.
“Ukraine wanted to buy this product from our firm, and they made a strong deal among themselves,” he said.
“This is not help from Turkey,” he added. “These are products Ukraine brought from a Turkish company. Of course, we are proud of these products.”
Ukrainian Bayraktars made their combat debut before the current war began when one destroyed a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas. That incident infuriated Russia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that Turkey had no responsibility for how Kyiv uses Turkish-built drones.
“If a country has purchased a weapon from us or another country, then that weapon cannot be labeled as Turkish or Russian or Ukrainian,” he said at a press conference shortly after the incident. “If a state is purchasing this from us, then that product is no longer Turkish. It may have been built in Turkey but it belongs to Ukraine. Turkey cannot be blamed for this.”
All these statements seemingly suggest that Turkish drone sales have little to no conditions or strings attached and that Ankara does not impose any end-use requirements. But how close is this to reality?
“Turkey is leaning into the idea that Turkish industry will sell weapons to whomever it wants, without government direction,” Nicholas Heras, the deputy director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told me. “This is a strategy to create plausible deniability in Turkish-Russian relations because Erdogan does not want a crisis with Putin.”
However, the notion that Baykar is selling TB2 drones to any country it wants regardless of Ankara’s wishes isn’t plausible.
“The Turkish government is strong,” Heras said. “If it wanted to prevent the Ukrainians from getting TB2s, it would stop the flow of these drones. Ankara has not stopped Turkish companies from selling TB2s to the Ukrainians.”
Consequently, Heras sees this as a “big signal” that the Turkish government sees an opportunity in Ukraine to simultaneously support the Turkish defense industry and give Kyiv the means to resist the Russian invasion.
Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, thinks that Turkey has “basic export controls” on its drone exports.
“I think Ankara met the Ukrainian order of 48 drones and delivered the back end of that order quickly once the war started,” he told me. “Ankara’s decision to parse words reflects its efforts to facilitate peace talks and stay on Russia’s good side, rather than, I think, reflect some broad-based take away about their drone exports.”
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, pointed out that Turkey’s experience exporting such arms are relatively new and, therefore, Ankara is “developing them over time.”
“Right now, it’s more of the Russian approach – that is, they’re not terribly concerned with how these systems are being used,” he told me. “But that’s also because they have not yet faced notable consequences for how their weapons are utilized abroad.”
While Russia has complained about Turkish drone sales to Ukraine, it has not tried to punish Ankara, Bohl noted.
“So there are two ways to look at it: from a values standpoint, Turkey does not have a political system that values strict end-use from a humanitarian standpoint (as opposed to the West), so Ankara is not worried about how purchasers might deploy their arms,” he said. “On the other hand, Turkey also is not exporting to anyone who might use these systems in a way that undermines Turkish strategic interests.”
However, the latter could change with time.
“In the future, if Turkey does sell the TB2 to former rivals, like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates (who are both hungry for weapons systems without the stringent end-use requirements of the US), these anti-Muslim Brotherhood powers might use them against ideological allies of Turkey,” Bohl said.
“That might also alter Turkey’s current, open-minded approach to selling the TB2 or any other weapons systems.”