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turkish drones to draw political influences in the caspian region

Turkish Drones to Draw Political Influences in the Caspian Region

Author: Meray Ozat

Jul 31, 2023

Image source: Baykar

Türkiye’s drones, such as the Bayraktar TB2, have become a staple of Türkiye’s military-industrial complex. These drones have been used in various global conflict zones since Türkiye began selling them in 2019. They’ve been used in the Ukraine war, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and several conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Currently, 29 countries have acquired Turkish drones, with four countries currently in negotiation and seven others showing interest in making future purchases. And among Türkiye’s growing list of purchasers, Central Asia and the Caucasus region have emerged as primary recipients of Turkish drones. Although the inflow of Turkish drones has bolstered the military capacity of Caspian region countries, it has also come with the cost of additional political and security risks.

Turkish drones have gained a competitive advantage in the drone market due to their lower price, superior quality, and exceptional post-sale service, outweighing other drone providers such as Russia and Iran. Notably, the most exclusive feature is the long-term training program that Türkiye drone companies provide upon delivery. In addition, Turkish drones have demonstrated their combat prowess combined with comprehensive services, including maintenance and support.

Central Asian countries are the main customers of Baykar, a leading Turkish drone factory. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan were the first buyers among Central Asian countries with their first purchases made in 2021. Kazakhstan followed with the signing of several drone deals with Türkiye, becoming a stable customer of Turkish drones. 

However, Uzbekistan has diverged from this regional trend, instead choosing to continue with American, Chinese, and Russian drones. Uzbekistan has shown no interest in adopting Turkish drones and it aims to build its own instead. 

Kyrgyzstan ranks the highest in Central Asia in terms of Turkish drone purchases. The import of Turkish drones has significantly increased after the border conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September 2022 that resulted in a direct military confrontation. During the escalation, Tajikistan discovered Kyrgyzstan's use of Turkish drones resulted in 15 casualties and damages to several military facilities. The Turkish drones gave Kyrgyzstan leverage over Tajikistan during the conflict, helping it to regain five villages.

While drone purchases among Central Asian states slowed down in 2023, Kyrgyzstan is still actively importing Turkish drones. Kyrgyzstan made two public purchases in 2023; in January for Aksungur and Anka drones, and in April for additional defense systems to counter drones. These frequent purchases likely relate to the unresolved Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict. Kyrgyzstan’s press secretary for the Presidential Administration, Daiyrbek Orunbekov, revealed that the budget for the drone purchase was extracted from the salaries of the Kyrgyz citizens. It is clear that Kyrgyz government officials are still concerned about the tense Kyrgyz-Tajik border situation. 

In addition to Kyrgyzstan, Turkish drone company Baykar also had similar deals with Tajikistan in early 2022. Although Kyrgyzstan quickly showed its concern over the deal, some unconfirmed Kyrgyz reports suggest that the drone deals were signed between Tajikistan and Türkiye on TB2 drones- a less costly, medium-altitude, long-range UAV system. Although it is unclear whether Tajikistan completed its purchase of Turkish drones, it is clear that Tajikistan began purchasing drones from its alternative supplier- its brotherly nation Iran, which shares the same language and similar culture. Soon after the Kyrgyz-Tajik tension, records confirmed that Tajikistan switched to Iranian drones. The deal between Iran and Tajikistan also included construction of a drone factory in Tajikistan that can directly produce Iranian drones called Ababil-2. However, the Iranian drones still did not change the inferior position of Tajikistan in the conflict because Iranian drones are still limited compared to Turkish drones.

Furthermore, Kazakhstan also signed deals with TUSAŞ in 2022, another Turkish drone provider, to jointly produce drones in Kazakhstan. This deal makes Kazakhstan the first country outside Türkiye to produce Anka drones. Kazakhstan is very optimistic about military cooperation with Türkiye. According to an interview in March 2023 with the Head of Kazakhstan’s Association of Defense Industry Enterprises, Aibek Baryssov expressed Kazakhstan’s readiness to continue cooperating with Turkish drones in any aspect other than joint drone production. 

Although drone deals between Central Asia and Türkiye have slowed in recent months, an astonishing drone deal was signed on July 18 between Türkiye and Saudi Arabia during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the Gulf region. Though the specific terms were not disclosed, the CEO of Baykar, Haluk Bayraktar, depicted the agreement as the “biggest defense deal” in Türkiye’s history. Türkiye continues to expand its customers in the Gulf region including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The Turkish sale to Saudi Arabia demonstrates Turkiye’s expanding military presence across different regions. Although the deal with the Gulf states might seem unrelated to Central Asia, military ties between Türkiye and Saudi Arabia can impact military ties between Türkiye and Central Asia. It should also be noted that the agreement took place amid the first Central Asian Gulf Summit in Jeddah on July 19 between the five Central Asian countries and the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The summit, being the first one with such a scale and model in the history of Central Asia and the Gulf relations, represents significant progress in relations between the two regions. The relations among Central Asia, Türkiye, and the Gulf seem to show an emerging regional alliance with cooperation in multiple sectors.

The Ukraine war has created opportunities for Central Asia to diversify its trade. At the same time, it has also allowed great power competition to grow in Central Asia. In addition to China and the West, Türkiye is becoming another prominent actor in the region, hoping to use pan-Turkism to build political alignment within the Caspian Region. The inflow of Turkish drones is a sign of Türkiye’s successful military power expansion. As Aibek Baryssov, expressed while describing the reasons for military cooperation with Türkiye: “We are brotherly nations. We are all Turkic People”.

While Türkiye presents itself as a stable and reliable partner to Central Asia by providing military equipment, the regional conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan does not seem to allow Türkiye to sell drones to all Central Asian countries. It has instead acted as a barrier between some nations. The prominence of Turkish drones has led to increased rivalry between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as the two countries compete for access to Turkish drones and other advanced military equipment.

The growing interests among Central Asian countries in military equipment demonstrate their commitment to consolidating their military power to strengthen defense capacity against geopolitical threats; from instabilities in Afghanistan to war in Ukraine and other regional conflicts. However, Türkiye’s strategic and military interests in Central Asia might not be fully satisfied without permission from NATO. Yet, with the growing Turkish influence in Central Asia, countering Russian and Chinese dominance in the region, the military deals might receive support from the European Union and the United States.

However, Central Asia’s move to strengthen their militaries and switch to Turkish drones poses security concerns to Russia, which has long held a regional monopoly over the military equipment market. As a member of NATO, Türkiye is seen as a potential threat to Russia’s regional dominance. The drone deal between Kazakhstan and Türkiye, for example, received criticism from the Russian media by describing the deal as a step to form a “military-technical dependence” on NATO and put regional security at risk. 

The rising popularity of Turkish drones also raises concern among Chinese officials. As one of the drone suppliers and key investors in the region with its Silk and Road Initiative, often called the Belt and Road Initiative, China considers Türkiye’s drone diplomacy in Central Asia as a threat to the regional role of China. 

Similar to the case in Central Asia, Türkiye is a strong competitor to Iranian drones in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan seems more interested in Turkish drones than Iranian drones despite close geographical and cultural ties with Iran. The CEO of Türkiye’s Bayraktar also believes in the “One Nation - Two States” concept between Türkiye and Azerbaijan, which share similar culture and languages. Accordingly, the Turkish drone company, Bayraktar, supported Azerbaijan in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. As the CEO said in an interview: “... it is an honor to have helped brothers and sisters here regain their land.” 

However, by witnessing strengthening military ties between Azerbaijan and Türkiye, Iran might consider increasing military drone supply to Armenia as a response. As a result, drone market competition between Turkey and Iran might escalate the Azerbaijan-Armenia tension. 

Central Asian and Caucasus officials are also aware of the risks and strive to alleviate tensions as conflicts with any of the countries would hinder their strategic and political interests. Especially Central Asia, with its multi-vector foreign policy, would prevent a dominating drone supplier in the region. Some countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, for example, are slowly developing domestic drones to reduce reliance on foreign drones. To effectively mitigate the conflict, the Central Asian states and Caucasus region need to diversify their drone purchases and maintain balance between the major drone providers. 

In general, several insights can be drawn from the growing popularity of Turkish drones in the Caucasus and Central Asia. First, Turkish military drone inflow in Central Asia might alter the geopolitical landscape in Central Asia. While it can contribute to the multi-vector regime of the Central Asian countries, it can also raise concerns among regional superpowers - Russia and China. Second, the Türkiye-Iran competition in the drone market could escalate regional tensions in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the two countries taking different sides in the rivalry and providing military support to their respective allies. 

In the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict in Central Asia, Türkiye provides drones to Kyrgyzstan while Iran supports Tajikistan. Likewise, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in the Caucasus draws a similar pattern with Turkish drones supplied to Azerbaijan and Iranian drones supplied to Armenia. The drone market competition between Iran and Türkiye, therefore, can only prolong and intensify the regional conflicts. The intention of buying Turkish drones to consolidate regional defense systems might lead to counterproductive results, bringing more harm than benefit by inciting dissatisfaction from interregional and extra-regional powers. 

The continuously shifting geopolitics have complicated regional trade and military relations, making them difficult to navigate in this volatile landscape. While the region pursues a multi-vector foreign policy, it also inevitably will encounter conflicts of interest among multiple foreign powers seeking influence in the region. It is in the hands of the decision-makers to find a balance among these important powers. Finding an equilibrium that keeps all the stakeholders satisfied can be challenging. But the solidarity, mutual trust, and cooperation among the regional countries are the primary basis for an effective resolution of the challenge. 


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