KHARKIV, Ukraine – Turkey is working to negotiate an exit for the wounded Ukrainian soldiers sheltering in the bunkers of a steel mill in the port city of Mariupol, but their efforts have been complicated by the fluidity of fighting at the scene and by Russia still having Ukraine granted approval for the plan, Turkey’s presidential spokesman said on Saturday.
In an unusually candid interview via conference call from Istanbul, spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey had been talking to Ukraine and Russia and trying to find an agreement, although both sides were constantly changing positions.
“It really depends on how the Russians view the war situation on the ground and the negotiations,” he said. “The struggle on the ground shapes the negotiations,” he added. “Even positions change from one day to the next. It’s very fluid.”
As a last stand in Mariupol, the southern city left in ruins by weeks of shelling, the Azovstal Works has become a powerful symbol for the Ukrainians and the fate of the remaining fighters – many wounded, and all of them surviving for ever-leaner ones Rations – is closely monitored.
Turkey has a ship waiting in Istanbul for five to six weeks to evacuate Ukrainians by sea from the port of Berdyansk and treat and rehabilitate the wounded in Turkey, Mr Kalin said. Russia and Ukraine have not yet approved the plan, he said, but the offer stands.
Mr Kalin, who served as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s national security adviser, has been closely involved in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine since the war began in late February. Turkey has hosted two rounds of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, and Mr Kalin said Mr Erdogan has spoken to Mr Putin five times since the invasion. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei K. Shoigu last month.
Turkey has recently received mounting appeals to support the evacuation of soldiers and civilians from Mariupol, including from United Nations officials, the soldiers themselves and some servicemen’s wives, who held a news conference in Kyiv on Saturday to support President Xi Jinping to urge China to persuade Mr. Putin to accept Turkey’s offer of evacuation.
Mr. Kalin welcomed the calls. “We take these appeals very seriously,” he said. “It’s a war zone and when you save one person 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 had to be evacuated, of whom about 450 were wounded. Evacuating so many people is logistically difficult, Mr Kalin said.
“For us to be able to do that, the conditions on the ground have to be in place,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s safe, because once they start moving, throughout this operation, there has to be absolute calm, safety and security, whether it’s taking six hours or 10 hours to get to their destination, a port or anywhere.” achieve safety.”
Turkey has experience in negotiating evacuations from war zones, which it successfully did several times during the Syrian Civil War from cities besieged by Russian and Syrian forces.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Two countries approach NATO. The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland are ready to meet their NATO counterparts to discuss the prospect of joining the alliance. In apparent retaliation, Russia halted electricity exports to Finland after declaring that NATO enlargement would pose a threat to its own national security.
Turkey also supports an alternative plan to evacuate the wounded overland to another Ukrainian city, Mr Kalin said. The United Nations and the Red Cross have successfully evacuated hundreds of civilians overland from the Azovstal Steelworks in recent weeks.
Ukraine has also offered to exchange the soldiers for Russian prisoners of war, which Mr Kalin said Russia has taken note of but has not commented on.
The evacuation of the soldiers was particularly complicated by the involvement of members of the Azov Battalion, a former far-right militia now officially integrated into the Ukrainian army. Russia has branded them Nazis and Mr Putin has said the war was designed to carry out the “denazification” of Ukraine.
“I understand the Ukrainian position that they all belong to the Ukrainian army, along with other groups, and they want them all to be able to get out,” Mr Kalin said. “But if you put them all in one basket, the Russians say ‘no’. So you know it’s a mutual lack of trust, mutual lack of coordination at times.”
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