The cat and the bird
DI ANDREA CRECCHI
Both Germany and Turkey have established themselves as leading actors in the business of arms exports, albeit with two very different approaches. What is the link between them, and how does it relate to their role in Ukraine? This article compares the policies of the two countries regarding arms exports, with a focus on two crucial weapon systems, the Gepard and the Bayraktar TB2.
The weapon export policies of Turkey and Germany would seem completely unrelated at a first glance: Turkey doesn’t seem to have many second thoughts about the customers of its arms, while Germany pursues a strict, but not always upheld, policy on weapons sales to countries embroiled in war or even at risk of unrest. This is reflected in the public perception of the two countries' role in sending weapons to Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion. While Turkey is praised for the impact its drones are having from the first weeks of the war, Germany has been heavily criticized for its hesitation in sending heavy weapons to the war zone. Beneath their obvious differences these two policies are linked, and both differences and links can be analyzed by looking at the two most important weapon systems the two countries have sent Ukraine: The Bayraktar TB2 and the Gepard.
The saying “Whatever floats goes, whatever rolls doesn’t” sums up the official German approach to selling weapons to unstable countries. Boats, and especially submarines, cannot be used against civilians, while tanks could potentially be turned against them. The saying is attributed to Hans Dietrich Genscher, a former German foreign minister that shaped the country’s foreign policy in the crucial years between 1976 and 1992 and is fondly remembered for his role in the end of the cold war and German reunification.
Ironically, in 1976, while Genscher stepped in the foreign affairs office for the first time as minister, the first units of what would become a German major contribution to Ukraine’s war effort rolled to the Bundeswehr headquarters. The Gepard is an anti-aircraft tank that has been a cornerstone of west Germany’s air defense against the soviet threat. It is named in the traditional German fashion of giving tanks the names of big cats and was developed to overcome the shortcomings of the American M42 Duster, as well as countering the soviet aerial doctrine of low flying aircraft.
Almost fifty years later Gepards are shooting down Iranian made Shahed-136 drones aimed at Ukrainian strategic infrastructure and civilian targets amidst Russia’s renewed bombing campaign against major cities. Despite their age, they are proving to be among Ukraine’s best options for aerial defense, fulfilling the original purpose of their creation.
30 Gepards are among Berlin’s first heavy weapons deliveries to the conflict and the most media friendly: the rest of the substantial German effort to support Ukraine has been overshadowed by the hesitation in delivering tanks. Nominally Germany pursues a strict selling policy, especially when looking at heavy equipment, with exceptions like tank exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, part of which has been seen in the conflict in Yemen and documented by the excellent EU Arms Project. Despite these, there is consistency in German arms exports: sales to Egypt have been composed mostly by ships and the government has backtracked on various arm deals, for example with Saudi Arabia, and more crucially, NATO partner Turkey.
Everyone has heard of the Bayraktar TB2. The Turkish drone has been instrumental in changing the course of several wars in the last 4 years. In Syria, Libya, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ethiopia and not least Ukraine, the TB2 has left its mark. Crucially 3 of these conflicts are civil wars, and Ethiopia has been accused of hitting civilian targets with its drones. Turkey’s arms exports are not constrained by human rights concerns, but purely driven by projection of Turkish influence.
To understand the rise of the Bayraktar, we must understand the growth of the domestic defense industry in Turkey in the last 20 years: from 2000 to 2020 Turkey's domestic fulfillment of its military needs jumped from 20% to 65%. This trend is only part of a continued effort to achieve autonomy from western weapon manufacturing, given the recurring unwillingness to trade in weapons with Turkey for reasons that range from the unrealistic requests for knowledge sharing to the conflict with the PKK in the eastern regions of the country. The Turkish drone program was born in these conditions, and it reflects them in function and name. It is made for fighting the Kurdish insurgents, which means it is mostly an air to land drone and is less technologically sophisticated than its competitors. This means that it is also far cheaper and more suited for poorer countries both for the price and its role in conflicts where there is not much aerial combat involved.
In 2018 Turkey initiated an invasion of northern Syria to curb Kurdish power in the region. Following this, the EU restricted weapon sales to Ankara and Germany blocked the land-based weapons export. This served as a reminder of Turkish vulnerability of the dependency on other countries but also showed the country’s increased domestic weapons capabilities, among them, the Bayraktar.
The name of the drone is also indicative of its other function: extending Turkish influence over eastern Africa and the Middle East. Bayraktar means flag-bearer. The colors that the TB2 brings to Libyan or Azeri skies are the red and white of Turkey. What has been dubbed as “Bayraktar diplomacy” permits Turkey to extend its influence on regions where it has not been relevant since the Ottoman Empire.
The Russia factor
It is important to consider that regarding Ukraine both countries have interest in not supporting Ukraine too much: Germany because of its longstanding links with Russia regarding gas, while Turkey for the role it is trying to play as a mediator in the war and for the conflictual understanding the two countries have in Libya, Syria and in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Their relationship with Russia shapes their arms export to Ukraine and partly explains both countries' reluctance to offer unconditional support to Ukraine.
The Gepard was born as a defensive weapon to fill a specific role in the BRD almost 50 years ago, and still fulfills that role in Ukraine. It exemplifies German arms exports policy, as it is an anti-air weapon with only self-defense capabilities, and the most notable German heavy weapon sent to Ukraine amidst its traditional reluctance to send heavy weapons to conflict zones.
The Bayraktar was born as a result of searching for independence from western manufacturers, among them Germany, which could potentially influence Turkish foreign and internal politics, and uphold human rights. It is offensive in nature and what makes it so interesting to potential buyers is its efficiency compared to its price, but also the absence of human rights strings attached to the drone. In Ukraine the drone has been successful in its results in combat but even more so in increasing Turkey’s reputation. Even if Ankara has sent far less weapons to Ukraine than Germany, in the public eye, Turkey has been more supportive than Germany to the Ukrainian war effort.