KHARKIV, Ukraine — Turkey is negotiating an exit for wounded Ukrainian soldiers hiding in the bunkers of a steel mill in the port city of Mariupol, but its efforts have been hampered by the fluid fighting on the ground and because neither Russia nor Ukraine has authorized the plan, the Turkish presidential spokesman said on Saturday.
In an unusually candid interview by teleconference from Istanbul, the spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey had spoken with Ukraine and Russia in an effort to reach an agreement, even as both sides continued to change 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 overnight. It is very liquid.”
As the final stand in Mariupol, the southern city left in ruins by weeks of shelling, the Azovstal factory has become a powerful symbol for the Ukrainians, and the fate of the remaining fighters – many wounded, and all of them survive on once meager rations. — is closely monitored.
Turkey has kept a ship waiting in Istanbul for five to six weeks to evacuate the Ukrainians by sea from the port of Berdyansk, treat the injured and rehabilitate in Turkey, Mr Kalin said. Russia and Ukraine have not yet approved the plan, he said, but the offer remains.
Kalin, who has served as national security adviser to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been deeply involved in Russia-Ukraine negotiations since the war’s start in late February. Turkey has organized two rounds of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, and Mr Kalin said Mr Erdogan has met with 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 mediate the evacuation of soldiers and civilians from Mariupol, including United Nations officials, the soldiers themselves and some soldier’s wives, who held a press conference in Kiev on Saturday to denounce President Xi Jinping. from China to convince Mr Putin to accept Turkey’s evacuation offer.
mr. Kalin welcomed the calls. “We take these requests very seriously,” he said. “It’s a war zone, and if you save one person, it’s really a blessing. It’s not a solution to the war, but it’s a good thing you’re doing under the circumstances.”
He said the Ukrainians told Turkey that about 1,500 soldiers had to be evacuated, about 450 of whom were injured. Evacuating so many people is logistically difficult, said Mr. Kalin.
“In order to do it, the conditions on the ground have to be there,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s safe because once they start moving throughout that entire operation, whether it takes six hours or ten hours to get to their destination, a port or somewhere, there must be absolute calm, security and security.”
Turkey has experience in negotiating evacuations from war zones, which it has successfully done several times during the Syrian civil war from cities under siege by Russian and Syrian forces.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Two countries are one step closer to NATO. The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland stand ready to meet with their NATO counterparts to discuss the prospect of joining the alliance. In retaliation, Russia has halted electricity exports to Finland after saying NATO expansion would threaten its own national security.
Turkey is also supporting an alternative plan to evacuate the injured by land to another Ukrainian city, Kalin said. The United Nations and the Red Cross have successfully evacuated hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant via land routes in recent weeks.
Ukraine has also offered to exchange the soldiers for Russian prisoners of war, which Kalin said Russia had noticed but did not comment on.
The evacuation of soldiers was notably complicated by the inclusion of members of the Azov Battalion, a former far-right militia now formally integrated into the Ukrainian military. 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 military, along with other groups, and they want them all to be able to escape,” said Mr. Kalin. “But if you put them all in the same basket, the Russians say ‘No’. So you know, it’s a mutual lack of trust, a mutual lack of coordination sometimes.”