Turkey and Central Asian military cooperation: more than just drones

From arms sales to joint military exercises and cooperation agreements, in the last few years Turkey has stepped up its security links with the Central Asian nations. This has opened new opportunities for the region, but Ankara should tread carefully and manage local rivalries.

Trade tends to be the priority when it comes to relations between two countries. Such has been the case between Turkey and Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, military and defence cooperation has now taken centre stage in the interactions between Ankara and the region. As Bruce Pannier puts it for Eurasianet, “over the last few years, it has been Turkey’s hard power, rather than its soft power, that gained attention in Central Asian capitals.” This is being developed in three interrelated fronts: military drills, arms deals and political agreements.

Shoulder to shoulder

These days Turkey is hosting its “Efes 2022” military exercises near the Aegean city of Izmir. Besides Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, two Central Asian countries are also taking part in the event: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Seeing Turkish troops partaking in manoeuvres with their Central Asian counterparts has become a common sight in the last few years.

Uzbekistan has also been carrying out military drills with Turkey for a while. Besides trilateral manoeuvres with Turkey and Pakistan in 2019 and 2021, Uzbekistan hosted Turkish forces in March 2021 for a joint military drill in the southern Uzbek city of Termez, near the border with Afghanistan.

No such events are known to have taken place with Turkmenistan or Tajikistan. The former’s status of neutrality prevents it, at least openly, from partaking in such initiatives while the latter, not a Turkic country, is not as close politically to Turkey as the rest. However, it is in the sales of weapons where Turkey’s footprint is most notably growing.

From drones to vessels

Turkey’s military industry has got some positive publicity in the last years, namely their drones’ performance in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and, more recently, in the war in Ukraine. Turkey’s now famous Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) are present in both Turkmenistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s arsenals. While the Turkmen case is in line with its armaments policy, the Kyrgyz purchase took place just months after its border conflict with neighbouring Tajikistan.    

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan purchased in late 2021 Turkish-made ANKA drones that were meant to be delivered by 2023. However, the terms of the deal changed for the better during the Kazakh president’s visit to Turkey in May 2022. During his trip, it was announced that Kazakhstan would manufacture the drones at home under license.  

But drones are not all that Turkey is exporting to Central Asia. Armoured vehicles are another component of the mix. In 2019 Uzbekistan received a first batch of Ejder Yalcin armoured personnel carriers. Kazakhstan meanwhile purchased a decade ago the Otokar Cobra, while last year it tested the more recent 8×8 Arma, also manufactured by Otokar. However, so far there has been no indication of any deal resulting from it. Turkmenistan is another country in the region to have acquired Otokar vehicles, both Cobra and Ural types.

From all the countries in the region, it is Turkmenistan the ones with the strongest links to Turkey in terms of weapons. Besides drones and vehicles, Turkey is responsible for supplying the majority of the country’s vessels. From its flagship, the Deniz Han C-92 corvette, to patrol and fast missile crafts.

The weapons and vehicles mentioned above are not an exhaustive list of all the arms supplied by Turkey to the region in recent times, but they help paint a picture of Ankara’s growing footprint and the difference among the Central Asian countries. While historically Russia still dominates the provision of weapons, with the exception of Turkmenistan, Turkey continues to increase its market share, and not only when it comes to drones.

Political will

The joint military exercises and arms sales would not be possible without political will and understanding between the different parties. To this effect, Turkey and the Central Asian countries have signed multiple documents highlighting cooperation in the security and defence spheres.

During the aforementioned visit of Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Turkey earlier this month, he signed a joint statement with his Turkish counterpart on their bilateral “Enhanced Strategic Partnership” which contained two articles explicitly concerned with defence.

Article 37 stated that “[both] Parties agreed… [to] enhance cooperation through dialogue mechanisms in the field of defence and security.” While according to Article 38 of such statement, they also agreed “to consider and pursue various opportunities for cooperation, including the establishment of joint production to deepen cooperation in the defence industry.” Moments later it was confirmed Kazakhstan would be producing the ANKA drones.

Lower-level meetings between Kazakh and Turkish officials have also taken place regularly to strengthen such ties. A few examples include Turkey’s Deputy Defence Minister’s trip to Kazakhstan in 2021 or, more recently, the encounter in Nur-Sultan between the head of the Kazakh Defence Ministry’s international cooperation department and Turkey’s Military Attaché in Kazakhstan

Uzbekistan has also been a country with whom Turkey has signed multiple defence and security agreements. Already back in 2018, during President Erdogan’s trip to Tashkent, both parties discussed cooperation in the defence industry. Two years later, President Mirziyoyev hosted the Turkish Defence Minister in the Uzbek capital. More explicit was Erdogan in March of this year during his last visit to Uzbekistan, in which he said that:

“Another area in which we have great potential is undoubtedly the defence industry.” Before adding that the Turkish defence industry was ready to share its opportunities with Uzbekistan. “The successes Turkey has achieved in this field are evident,” he concluded.

Kyrgyzstan’s military cooperation with Turkey increased significantly in 2021 after the border conflict with Tajikistan. Weeks after the incident, President Sadyr Japarov visited Turkey. According to the Kyrgyz, the Turkish side “expressed a desire to provide military-technical assistance to the Ministry of Defence of Kyrgyzstan on a grant basis.” Days later, the Turkish Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, visited Bishkek and met with his Kyrgyz counterpart and with President Sadyr Japarov. Later the purchase of Bayraktar drones was announced.

As part of the same regional tour, Akar also stopped in Tajikistan after being in Kyrgyzstan. In Dushanbe, he discussed “bilateral and regional defence and security issues” with his Tajik counterpart, Sherali Mirzo. In January 2022, the Tajik ambassador to Turkey met with Akar to continue exploring venues of cooperation in the field of defence. Three months later, in April, the Turkish Defence Minister hosted Mirzo and they both signed a Military Frame Agreement.  

Balancing regional politics

As part of the Tajik Defence Minister’s visit to Turkey, news started to emerge in the Turkish press about the possibility of Tajikistan purchasing Bayraktar drones just like neighbouring Kyrgyzstan had done the previous year. The new Kyrgyz foreign minister, Jeenbek Kulubayev, went as far as to admit in Parliament that Tajikistan had bought the Turkish-made UCAVs:

“Yes it’s true. Turkey sent Bayraktars to Tajikistan. Earlier, we asked the Turkish side to be careful in this matter, since the problems between the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Tajikistan have not yet been resolved. We asked not to sell drones to neighbouring countries. They answered that it was business, the issue of building up military-technical cooperation. We will negotiate with the Turkish side after receiving all the information”

Bishkek was rightly alarmed at these events. With Turkish help, Kyrgyzstan had gained a significant advantage over Tajikistan thanks to the arrival of the drones, but that was now being cancelled. For all the talk of Turkic brotherhood, Bishkek was seeing as, despite being a member of the Organisation of Turkic States, it was on the same footing as Tajikistan as far as Turkey was concerned.

However, things changed just three days later, on April 30. That day the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan issued a statement in which it said that according to the available reliable data, the Tajik side did not conclude contracts with the Bayraktar manufacturer, the Baikar Makina company, as well as other Turkish similar manufacturers.”

This is welcomed news for Kyrgyzstan, that were followed by the announcement that Tajikistan will produce Iranian drones. Nevertheless, it does raise the question of why the Kyrgyz Foreign Minister categorically admitted that the Tajiks had bought Turkish drones. Time will confirm if Kulubayev was telling the truth or if he was mistaken.

The episode above illustrates one of the dangers Turkey faces while trying to expand its security links in Central Asia. Turkey should be aware of the delicate balance in the region and cannot aspire to have the same level of interaction with all the actors. Each has their own foreign policy and neighbourly grievances. Ignoring this can end up alienating some of these countries.

At the same time, the different membership status of some of the nations in Turkish-sponsored initiatives like the Organisation of Turkic States adds another layer of complexity. In the following months or years, we will see if Ankara has learnt from the “misunderstanding” regarding Tajikistan and the Bayraktar drones.

Then there is the question of how Moscow and Beijing, the traditional players in this sphere in Central Asia, see Turkey’s growing role in military matters. But this is a separate topic altogether.

(Photo source: Twitter)

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