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Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia: Turkish Drones

6 minute read

In a video that went viral on Twitter Sunday night, a massive explosion rips through what appears to be a Russian convoy, scoring a direct hit on a surface-to-air missile system.

The black-and-white footage, posted to the account of the Ukrainian armed forces, is one of several that have emerged on social media in recent days showing the devastating impact of Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian hardware. As the drone’s payload explodes in the video—which appears to be a cellphone recording of a screen in a Ukrainian drone facility—people at the facility can be heard gasping in awe before breaking out in cheers and applause.

The video racked up more than 3 million views on Twitter in two days. “Have fear, enemies! There will be no peace for you on our earth!” the Ukrainian armed forces wrote in the video’s caption.

The star of this video and others circulating on Twitter is the Bayraktar TB2—a type of Turkish drone that the Ukrainian military has increasingly deployed against Russian forces in recent days. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military said that Bayraktar drones had destroyed one tank and two surface-to-air missile systems overnight. In other videos shared on Twitter, Bayraktar drones, in use by the military since at least 2021, are shown blowing up what appears to be a Russian fuel convoy and a group of supply trucks.

The drones are small and lightweight, (around seven times lighter than the U.S. military’s Reaper drone,) with a 12-meter wingspan that allows them to remain in the sky for up to 30 hours at a time. Each drone can each carry four laser-guided missiles, according to promotional material from Baykar Technologies, the company that produces them.

The impact of Bayraktar drones in Ukraine

Ukraine’s drone campaign has contributed to its early successes in slowing the Russian advance, and is revealing unexpected weaknesses on the part of the Russian army, U.S. and European military analysts say. Perhaps more significantly, analysts add, the videos are also becoming an increasingly prominent part of Ukraine’s information war – giving Russian invaders a reason to fear their enemy, and providing a vital boost for Ukrainian morale amid fears of a coming military onslaught. Even so, the drones are unlikely to change the long-term course of the war, analysts point out.

“The footage released by the Ukraine military shows serious defects in Russian air defense cover, which is a surprise for many observers,” says Arda Mevlütoğlu, a Turkish military and aerospace analyst. “The footage is also very useful for PR and psychological warfare.”

Reliable and accurate military drones were once the exclusive purview of the U.S. military. But the technology has become more commonplace in recent years, and is now a fixture of many 21st century battlefields. And Turkey is now the preeminent supplier. In the last two years, Turkish Bayraktar drones have appeared not only in Ukraine, but also Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. Last year in Ethiopia, a rebel force was bearing down on the capital Addis Ababa before the government repelled them with the drones. In the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, Turkish drones proved decisive in the Azeri victory against Armenia – a Russian ally.

“In recent years, the Bayraktars have scored some really famous successes,” says Tony Osborne, the London bureau chief of Aviation Week, a publication focused on the aerospace industry. “I would argue that it’s now the most famous drone of them all.”

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The video shared by the Ukrainian armed forces on Sunday reveals one of the drones’ key selling points: that they are capable of inflicting disproportionate damage on enemy hardware, far more cheaply than other drones, and at low risk. Osborne estimates that the Bayraktar drones were sold to Ukraine at a cost in the single-digit millions of dollars each – but that the Russian surface-to-air missile system destroyed in the video on Sunday could be worth up to $50 million.

“The crucial thing about these is that they are cheap, and when they’re cheap you’re not so worried about losing them,” he says. “You can throw them into a fight and if they do score a dramatic hit, like we saw yesterday, suddenly you’re winning the attritional war.”

Osborne estimates that Ukraine likely has around 20 Baykar drones in its operational arsenal. In December, Bloomberg reported that Ukraine had placed orders for two dozen more, citing officials. Baykar did not respond to requests for comment.

Turkey’s growing role as a drone power

For Turkey, a NATO member, the drone sales to Ukraine align with its military interests – namely preserving the balance of power in the Black Sea region, according to Galip Dalay, a specialist on Turkish and Middle Eastern politics at Chatham House, a London international affairs think tank.

While Bayraktar drones are manufactured by a private company, Baykar Technologies, the drones are widely seen to be an arm of Turkish foreign policy. The company’s chief technology officer, Selçuk Bayraktar, is the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Countries like the U.S., China, Israel, denied to sell Ukraine armed UAVs,” said Haluk Bayraktar, the company’s CEO and Selçuk’s brother, during a webinar in May 2021. “Turkey was the only country to accept to sell Ukraine this technology.”

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Turkish foreign policy has also animated the presence of Bayraktar drones in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan – all battlefields where Russian and Turkish proxies face off. “Drones give Turkey a geopolitical edge,” Dalay says. “It’s one thing to engage in conventional fighting in places like Libya or Syria, but it’s another thing to employ drones. Drones make Turkey’s job easier.”

In other cases, like Ethiopia, Turkish drone sales are likely motivated more by economic drivers than political ones. Turkey attached no political conditions to its drone exports, unlike the U.S., according to Mevlütoğlu.

The videos of Bayraktar drones visiting death upon Russian convoys have almost certainly been shared by the Ukrainian military to raise morale. But with a large column of Russian vehicles trundling toward Kyiv, any Ukrainian morale stemming from videos of drone strikes is likely to be short-lived. Baykar, on the other hand, looks set to reap the rewards long into the future. “Now that Turkey has a growing defense industry, you want to showcase your items as battle-tested,” Dalay says. “Those kinds of conflict zones have become major PR for the Turkish drone industry.”

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com