Turkey’s president and the UN chief met with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy on Thursday in a high-stakes bid to ratchet down a war raging for nearly six months, discuss desperately needed grain exports and address the safety of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant amid the fighting.
The gathering, held far from the front lines in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, near the Polish border, marked the first visit to Ukraine by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the outbreak of the war, and the second by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Erdogan has positioned himself as a go-between in efforts to stop the fighting that erupted when Russia invaded Ukraine. While Turkey is a NATO member, its wobbly economy is reliant on Russia for trade, and the country has tried to steer a middle course.
On the battlefield, meanwhile, at least 11 people were killed and 40 wounded in heavy Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Ukrainian authorities said.
Russia’s military claimed that it struck a base for foreign mercenaries in Kharkiv, killing 90. There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side.
Heightening international tensions, Russia deployed warplanes carrying state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles to the country’s Kaliningrad region, an enclave surrounded by two NATO nations.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the three leaders would discuss the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the complex, and the fighting has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
In his nightly video address Wednesday, Zelensky reaffirmed his demand for the Russian military to leave the plant, emphasizing that “only absolute transparency and control of the situation” by, among others, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, could guarantee nuclear safety.
Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, commander of the Russian military’s radiological, chemical and biological protection forces, charged that the Ukrainian troops were planning to strike the plant Friday during Guterres’ visit to Ukraine in order to accuse Russia of nuclear terrorism. Ukraine has steadfastly denied targeting the plant.
Kirillov said an emergency at the plant could see “a discharge of radioactive substances into the atmosphere and spread them hundreds of kilometers away.”
Earlier this month, Erdogan met in Russia with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the fighting. Last month, Turkey and the U.N. helped broker agreements clearing the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of corn and other grain stuck in its Black Sea ports since Russia invaded Feb. 24. The agreements also sought to clear roadblocks to exports of Russian food and fertilizer to world markets.
The war and the blocked exports have significantly worsened the global food crisis because Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of grain and other agricultural products. Developing countries have been hit particularly hard by shortages and high prices, and the U.N. has declared several African nations in danger of famine.
Yet even with the deal, only a trickle of Ukrainian grain exports has made it out. Turkey’s Defense Ministry said more than 622,000 tons of grain have been shipped from Ukrainian ports since the deal was reached.
The discussions about an overall end to the war that has killed untold thousands and forced over 10 million Ukrainians to flee their homes were not expected to yield anything substantive.
In March, Turkey hosted talks in Istanbul between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, but the effort to end the hostilities failed, with the two sides blaming each other.
Erdogan has engaged in a delicate balancing act, maintaining good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. Turkey has provided Ukraine with drones, which played a significant role in deterring a Russian advance early in the conflict, but it has refrained from joining Western sanctions against Russia over the war.
Turkey is facing a major economic crisis, with official inflation near 80%, and is increasingly dependent on Russia for trade and tourism. Russian gas covers 45% of Turkish energy needs, and Russia’s atomic agency is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based EDAM think thank characterized Turkey’s diplomatic policy as being “pro-Ukraine without being anti-Russia.”
“Turkey believed that it did not have the luxury to totally alienate Russia,” Ulgen said, noting that Turkey also needed Russia’s support in Syria to avert a new refugee crisis.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Robert Badendieck contributed from Istanbul.