LVIV, Ukraine –
Turkey’s leader and UN chief met in Ukraine with President Volodymr Zelenskyy on Thursday in a high-powered bid to de-escalate a war that has been going on for nearly six months. But little immediate progress was reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would follow up with Russian President Vladimir Putin as most of the issues discussed would require agreement from the Kremlin.
With the meetings held at such a high level (it was Erdogan’s first visit to Ukraine since the war began and the second for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres), some hoped for progress, if not toward comprehensive peace, at least. at least on specific topics. But none were apparent.
Meeting in the western city of Lviv, far from the front lines, the leaders discussed issues such as expanding prisoner-of-war swaps and arranging for UN atomic energy experts to visit and help secure the nuclear power plant. largest in Europe, which is in the midst of fierce fighting that has raised fears of catastrophe.
Erdogan has positioned himself as a go-between in efforts to stop the fighting. Although Turkey is a member of NATO, its faltering economy relies on Russia for trade, and it has sought to strike a middle ground between the two combatants.
The Turkish president urged the international community after the talks not to abandon diplomatic efforts to end the war that has killed tens of thousands and forced more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes.
He reiterated that Turkey is willing to act as a “mediator and facilitator,” adding: “I remain convinced that the war will end at the negotiating table.”
In March, Turkey hosted talks in Istanbul between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, but the effort to end hostilities failed.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, at least 17 people were killed overnight in heavy Russian missile strikes in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday.
The Russian military claimed it hit a foreign mercenary base in Kharkiv, killing 90. There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side.
In the latest in a series of incidents on Russian soil near the Ukrainian border, an ammunition depot caught fire in the Belgorod region, the regional governor said. No casualties were reported.
As international tensions rise, Russia has deployed state-of-the-art hypersonic missile fighter jets to its Kaliningrad region, an enclave surrounded by NATO members Lithuania and Poland.
An important topic in the talks in Lviv was the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of bombing the compound.
Condemning the Kremlin for what he called “nuclear blackmail,” Zelenskyy demanded that Russian troops leave the plant and that a team from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency be allowed in.
“The area needs to be demilitarized and we must tell it like it is: any potential damage in Zaporizhzhia is suicide,” Guterres told a news conference.
Erdogan also expressed concern about the fighting around the plant, saying: “We don’t want to experience another Chernobyl,” a reference to the world’s worst nuclear accident, in Ukraine in 1986.
Zelenskyy and the UN chief on Thursday agreed on arrangements for an IAEA mission to the plant, according to the president’s website. But it was not immediately clear whether the Kremlin would agree to the terms. As for the troop withdrawal, a Russian Foreign Ministry official earlier said it would leave the plant “vulnerable.”
Fears were heightened on Thursday when Russian and Ukrainian authorities accused each other of plotting to attack the site and then blaming the other side.
Guterres used the talks in Lviv to appoint Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz of Brazil to lead a previously announced UN fact-finding mission to Olenivka prison, where 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in an explosion in July. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the explosion.
Also on Thursday’s agenda: an increase in grain exports. Earlier this summer, the UN and Turkey brokered a deal that paved the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of corn and other grains stuck in its Black Sea ports since the Russian invasion.
The lockdown has worsened global food shortages, pushed up prices and raised fears of famine, especially in Africa. Yet even with the deal, only a trickle of Ukrainian grain has made it out: some 600,000 tonnes according to Turkey’s estimates.
Zelenskyy said Thursday that he proposed expanding shipments. Guterres, for his part, praised the success of the operation, but added: “There is a long way to go before this translates into people’s daily lives in their local bakery and markets.”
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Robert Badendieck contributed from Istanbul.