Turkey must maintain a delicate diplomatic balance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine so that it remains able to help facilitate an eventual negotiated end to the war, Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said in an interview.
Kalın, who is also President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy adviser, said that while Ankara has criticized Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion and actions on the battlefield, it would do no good to take a more punitive stance against Russia.
NATO member Turkey, a Black Sea neighbor of the warring nations, has good ties with both and has opposed Western sanctions on Moscow. It has seen tens of thousands of Russians, and some oligarchs’ sanctioned yachts, arrive since the war began.
Yet, it has also supplied Kyiv with armed drones, blocked some Russian naval passage to the Black Sea and stands alone as having hosted talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers and separately between their teams.
“We have opposed this war from the beginning” but also maintained contact with Moscow, Kalın said over the weekend.
“They need someone, a trusted partner, negotiator, facilitator, moderator, someone in some position to be able to speak to the Russian side as well as to the Ukrainian side,” he told Reuters.
“We have been able to maintain this position since the beginning of the war and I think it is really in everybody’s shared interest that everybody maintains a balanced position.”
Russian forces began withdrawing from near Kyiv after peace negotiations in Istanbul in late March.
Turkey has hosted no further talks but in recent weeks it proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of wounded fighters holed up in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Kalın also told Reuters that Turkey has proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of wounded fighters holed up in a steelworks in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
As Kalın said, he had personally discussed the proposal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv two weeks ago and that it remains “on the table” although Moscow has not agreed to it.
Under the plan, people evacuated from the vast Azovstal steel plant would be taken by land to the port of Berdyansk, which like Mariupol is on the Sea of Azov, and a Turkish vessel would take them across the Black Sea to Istanbul, he said.
“If it can be done that way, we are happy to do it. We are ready. In fact, our ship is ready to go and bring the injured soldiers and other civilians to Turkey,” said Kalın.
Ukraine and Russia did not immediately comment on the possibility of an evacuation by sea.
After weeks of Russian siege and bombardment, Mariupol is in Russian hands, but hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are holding out under heavy fire at the steelworks.
A number of civilians who were sheltering in the plant were evacuated this month with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. Turkey’s proposal included evacuating the civilians who were still there.
Zelenskyy has said complex talks are under way to evacuate a large number of wounded soldiers from the steelworks in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.
Russia, which initially said the fighters should surrender, has said little publicly about the talks. Kalın said the Russian position “changes day to day.”
“They look at the security situation on the ground and other dynamics, their negotiations, their own internal coordination,” he said. “So sometimes it is hard to get a firm response (or) commitment from either side.”
Kalın said the naval evacuation from Berdyansk was one of a number of proposals to reach a cease-fire and carry out an evacuation.
“It may happen, yes. I believe it may happen,” he said.
“The boat is still in Istanbul. It is ready to sail but we are waiting for final clearance from the Russian and Ukrainian sides for it to go to Berdyansk and bring those injured soldiers to Turkey.”
It was unclear when or whether Turkey would host talks for Russian and Ukrainian leaders Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “There is no magic formula to resolve this overnight,” Kalın said.
Asked what might prompt Turkey to take a more pro-Ukraine, punitive stance against Russia, he said: “What good would it do?” It would not “change the outcome nor course of the war at this point,” he said.
Ankara’s drone shipments have already angered Moscow, while its sanctions stance has irked some Western politicians.
There have been few clear signs of warming relations with the West, underlined by Turkey’s criticism of prospective new NATO members Sweden and Finland in recent days.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Sunday Turkey wanted both Nordic countries to stop activities on their territories of groups seen by Ankara as terrorist organizations, as well as to lift export bans on Turkey.
Yet Kalın pointed to a supportive letter the Biden administration sent to the U.S. Congress on the potential sale of 40 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey as a signal of progress.