KHARKIV, Ukraine – Turkey is working to broker an exit for wounded Ukrainian soldiers sheltering in bunkers at a steel mill in the port city of Mariupol, but its efforts have been complicated by the fluid fighting on the ground and because neither Russia nor Ukraine has given permission for the plan, Turkey’s presidential spokesman said on Saturday.
In an unusually candid interview via teleconference from Istanbul, spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey had spoken to Ukraine and Russia, trying to broker a deal even as the two sides constantly shifted positions.
“It really depends on how the Russians see the war situation on the ground and the negotiations,” he said. “The battle on the ground shapes the negotiations,” he added. “Positions also change from day to day. It’s very fluid. »
As the last defense in Mariupol, the southern city that was left in ruins by weeks of bombardment, the Azovstal factory has become a powerful symbol for Ukrainians, and the fate of the remaining fighters – many wounded, and all surviving on ever meager rations – is closely watched.
Turkey has a ship that has been waiting for five to six weeks in Istanbul to evacuate Ukrainians by sea from the port of Berdyansk, and to treat the injured and rehabilitate them in Turkey, Kalin said. Russia and Ukraine have not yet approved the plan, he said, but the offer remains.
Mr Kalin, who served as national security adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been closely involved in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine since the war began in late February. Turkey hosted two rounds of peace talks between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations, and Mr Kalin said Mr Erdogan had spoken to Mr Putin five times since the invasion. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei K. Shoigu last month.
Turkey has recently received increasing calls to intercede in the evacuation of soldiers and civilians from Mariupol, including from United Nations officials, soldiers themselves and some soldiers’ wives, who have Saturday held a press conference in kyiv to urge China’s President Xi Jinping to convince Putin to accept Turkey’s evacuation offer.
Mr. Kalin allowed the appeals. “We take these calls very seriously,” he said. “It’s a war zone, and if you save someone, it’s really a blessing. It’s not a solution to war, but it’s a good thing you’re doing under the circumstances.
He said the Ukrainians had told Turkey about 1,500 soldiers needed to be evacuated, including about 450 wounded. Evacuating so many people is logistically difficult, Kalin said.
“For us to do that, the conditions on the ground have to be there,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s safe because once they start moving through this whole operation, whether it takes them six hours or 10 hours to reach their destination, a port or somewhere, there has to be absolute calm, security and safety.”
Turkey has experience in negotiating evacuations from war zones, which it has done successfully on several occasions during Syria’s civil war from towns besieged by Russian and Syrian troops.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Two countries are approaching NATO. The Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers are set to meet their NATO counterparts to discuss the prospect of joining the alliance. In apparent retaliation, Russia halted its electricity exports to Finland after saying NATO enlargement would pose a threat to its own national security.
Turkey is also supporting an alternative plan to evacuate the injured by land to another Ukrainian town, Kalin said. The United Nations and the Red Cross have managed to evacuate hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal steelworks in recent weeks by land.
Ukraine also offered to swap the soldiers for Russian POWs, which Kalin said Russia had noted but not commented on.
The evacuation of the soldiers was notably complicated by the inclusion of members of the Azov battalion, a former far-right militia now formally integrated into the Ukrainian army. Russia called them Nazis and Mr Putin said the war was aimed at achieving the “denazification” of Ukraine.
“I understand the Ukrainian position that they all belong to the Ukrainian military, along with other groups, and they want them all to be able to get out,” Kalin said. “But if you put them all in the same basket, the Russians say ‘No’. So, you know, it’s a lack of mutual trust, a mutual lack of coordination sometimes.