In recent years, Turkish drones such as the Bayraktar TB2 have become household names, owing to their successful deployment in multiple conflicts around the globe, including Ukraine. The drones have also popped up in Central Asia, with Kyrgyzstan being one of the main customers of Turkish kit.
On April 6, Turkish media outlet Defence Turk reported that Kyrgyzstan had received a Turkish defence system to counter small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. Two days later, the Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop explained that Kyrgyz operators were being trained in Turkey, along with their Azerbaijani counterparts, by Turkish drone producer Baykar. Yet, Turkey’s role in Central Asia with regard to military technology is not new.
The first Bayraktar TB2 drones, manufactured by Turkish Baykar, already entered service with the Kyrgyz Air Force in 2021. Ever since, other Turkish defence contractors have also started operating in Kyrgyzstan. For example, after the clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September 2022, Bishkek not only ordered TB2 drones, but also Aksungur and Anka drones that are produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries. Although it is safe to say that Turkish drones are gaining ground in Kyrgyzstan, other countries in the region have shown interest in this equipment as well. The question is if this trend will continue.
Deployment in regional conflicts
Border tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan escalated in September 2022. Following an exchange of fire between border guards, the conflict spread along the entire border and spilled over into Kyrgyzstan proper. The intensity of the clashes was unprecedented and the Tajik government soon accused the Kyrgyz army of using Turkish drones, according to Reuters.
Tajik media Asia-Plus reported that prior to this escalation, Baykar had also offered Tajikistan its drones during the visit of a Turkish delegation in early 2022. Kyrgyzstan was quick to express discontent with the looming deal. The Turkish company replied that the offer was business as usual, as per 24.kg news.
Read more on Novastan: Can relations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan improve?
Soon after, Dushanbe signed an agreement with Iran instead, that would allow Tajikistan to build a drone factory for the production of Iranian drones, including the Ababil 2. For Tehran, this project is an attempt to expand the market share of Iranian drones in Central Asia and compete with Turkish drones.
Turkish drones seem superior
The global drone market has been growing rapidly since the 2010s and Central Asia too has become an increasingly important sales market, Forbes reports. According to Global Voices, China and the United States are clearly ahead of the curve in market penetration, while Russia lags behind.
The reason for this is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has cast doubt on Moscow’s intentions in Central Asia. According to researcher Suleyman Ozeren, the war was an important consideration for Astana to purchase drones from Turkey instead.
Turkish drone technology also was rather effective during the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020. Moreover, Chinese drones are faulty, which is why the Turks have come out as a clear winner in the battle for Central Asian defence contracts.
Different geopolitical strategies
In 2020, Turkmenistan was the first country in the region to buy drones from Baykar. Lately, other regional players have also demonstrated interest in purchasing Turkish systems. The Diplomat reported that Kazakhstan, like Kyrgyzstan, has opted for other Turkish brands, as well as Russian and Israeli drones. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have bought American drones, in addition to Chinese and Russian machinery.
Read more on Novastan: Turkey’s new push into Central Asia
Aside from diversifying their respective inventories, Central Asian republics are seeking more autonomy in drone production as well. Some have decided to invest in domestic production, signing agreements with drone-producing countries such as Tajikistan did with Iran. Kazakhstan has negotiated a similar deal with Turkey about the production of the Anka combat drones, as reported by Turkish media TRT World.
Others seek to strengthen their own military industry, such as Uzbekistan. According to Uzbek media Kun.uz, Tashkent has shown interest in designing drones of their own, rather than being dependent on foreign manufacturers.
Future Turkish moves in the region
Drone diplomacy runs parallel to other Turkish initiatives in the region, such as the Organisation of Turkic States, as well as other cooperation in certain areas. In some circles, the seeming effectiveness of Turkish drones in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war reinvigorated ideas about some sort of pan-Turkic military alliance, as Turkish researcher Can Kasapoğlu explains.
Read more on Novastan: the Great Turkestan – myth or prospect
However, the military culture of post-Soviet Central Asian republics remains largely unchanged, despite Ankara’s proven willingness to provide state-of-the-art military equipment to countries in the region.
Most importantly, the case of Kyrgyzstan shows that despite previous claims by Turkish drone producer Baykar, political considerations matter when it comes to defence procurements. Indeed, when Kyrgyzstan expressed dissatisfaction with the Turkish drone deal with Tajikistan, Ankara’s Central Asia policy was thrown out of balance.
That is because the current situation undermines Turkey’s position as a mediator in regional affairs, especially since Kyrgyzstan used Turkish drones against Tajikistan during the 2022 clashes. Ankara will hence likely seek to strengthen its ties with Dushanbe, so as to remain one of the region’s primary and most respected interlocutors.
Written by Lucas Morvan
Translated from French by Julian Postulart
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