International report

Will Russian tourists and Covid vaccines force Turkey to abandon Ukraine?

Audio 05:43
Making an offer you can't refuse: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Making an offer you can't refuse: Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP - Alexei Druzhinin

With tensions escalating between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey is standing by Kiev, for the moment at least. But Turkey could end up paying a heavy price as Moscow steps up pressure on Ankara. Russian tourists and the Sputnik V vaccine could well be the currency.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come out in support of Kiev, as Ukrainian and Russian forces face off over Ukraine's Donbass region.

"As Turkey, we have clearly defended Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," said Erdogan. "We believe that the current crisis should be resolved by peaceful means, based on international law and respect of the territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Erdogan spoke during a recent meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited Istanbul in April. The two nations have a defense cooperation agreement built around their respective defense industries.

Air defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu suggests Kiev is looking to expand its fleet of Turkish-made military drones.

"Drones have become most important, most symbolic elements of Turkish-Ukraine defense cooperation. Ukraine is one of the first countries that purchased Turkish drones," said Mevlutoglu.

"It should be noted the latest performance of Turkish drones in various conflict areas such as Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh also seems to have stimulated Ukraine's motivation in using and deploying those drones in the critical areas such as Donbas," he added.

Turkish drone manufacturers are advertising their success in giving Azerbaijan a decisive advantage against Russian-backed Armenian forces over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

But the use of Turkish drones in Ukraine could raise tensions between Turkey and Russia. "I think if Ukrainians use Turkish drones against Russian tanks or cars, trucks, whatsoever, then we have a problem," warned Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute.

"It looks, of course, as if Turkey will sell another 25 drones," added Bagci. "The contract is there. But it's not so far that the drones are used at the moment. But if it's used, yes, then I consider this a big problem for Turkish Russian relations."

Lavrov issues stern warning

But Moscow has pushed back, warning Ankara not to make further arms sales to Ukraine.

"We urge all responsible countries that we communicate with – and Turkey is one of them – that we strongly recommend they analyze the situation and the Kiev regime's constant belligerent statements. We also warn them against encouraging these militaristic aspirations," said Sergey Lavrov speaking during a visit to Egypt earlier this month.

Following Lavrov's warning, Russia temporarily suspended most flights and tourist travel to Turkey, citing concerns over Covid infections, a move some analysts see as Moscow's stepping up pressure on Ankara.

Russian tourists usually visit Turkish resorts in their millions, generating billions of euros of income and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Moscow has in the past used tourism as a tool against Ankara. Following Turkish jets shooting down a Russian warplane operating from a Syrian airbase, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned tourists visiting Turkey, devastating the Turkish tourism industry.

The Covid pandemic could also be an opportunity for Moscow. Turkey is desperately seeking vaccines after China failed to deliver a promised 100 million shots.

Erdogan earlier this month spoke with Putin over plans to supply and possibly co-produce the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Don't mention the war . . .

At the same time, two countries are continuing to work together to resolve the Syrian civil war.

Expert on Turkish Russian relations, Zaur Gasimov of the University of Bonn, says given Ankara and Moscow's shared interests, they have too much to lose, despite tensions over Ukraine.

"The cooperation with Ankara is so important for Russia with regard to Syria and also with regard to the situation around Karabakh that I don't think that Russia would be interested in a further deterioration of the relations with Ankara. We see that the relations with Moscow and Turkey mean they can digest the conflicts. So, the cooperation is so multilayered that it can overcome the smaller conflictive situation like this one, now around Ukrainian-Turkish military cooperation," said Gasimov.

For now, analysts see Russia continuing to pressure Turkey over Ukraine using vaccine cooperation as a reward and restrictions on tourist travel as punishment.

Between politics and pandemics, Turkish resorts – normally packed with Russian sun-seekers – are likely to remain deserted for some time to come.

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