The first meeting between the top diplomats of Russia and Ukraine since Moscow invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24 dashed hopes of easing the humanitarian situation on the ground.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended a meeting hosted by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the southern town of Antalya. Cavusoglu met with the two separately before the tripartite meeting on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, a three-day foreign policy marathon organized by Ankara.
After talks that lasted slightly over an hour, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia held dueling press conferences in which both thanked Turkey’s efforts but agreed on little else.
“I came to this meeting with the hope of walking off with [accords] on two key issues, organizing a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol and reaching a 24-hour cease-fire,” Kuleba said. “But clearly, Lavrov came here to talk, not to decide.”
Kuleba said that Lavrov told him that while he was not against humanitarian corridors, he was not authorized to decide. The southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been pounded by Russian forces. The city’s 400,000 residents have been without water or power and the city’s mayor said that children have started dying of dehydration. On Wednesday, the Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in the town, killing three.
In his press conference next door, Lavrov reiterated that the Ukraine had to be “demilitarized” and remain neutral. He accused the West of arming Ukraine in a way that would create a security threat to Russia not only today, but for years to come.
Responding to a question by a Turkish journalist, Lavrov said that Russia had no plans to attack any other country. “What we do in Ukraine is not an invasion,” he said. “We warned [Western allies] over and over on our security concerns related to Ukraine … before we held a special operation.” He dismissed prophecies of nuclear war as manipulation by Western capitals and news of the bombing of the maternity hospital as manipulation by the Western media. ”The maternity hospital in Mariupol was already in control of Ukrainian radicals and no patients were there,” Lavrov said.
“Mr. Kuleba said that we did not reach an agreement on the cease-fire during the talks today, but we did not have such an aim when we came here anyway,” Lavrov said, pointing out that talks have been held in Belarus to address the cease-fires and other issues.
The Russian and Ukrainian delegations have met three times in the Belarusian city of Brest, most recently on Monday, but the Antalya meeting is the first to bring together the two foreign ministers in person.
The event follows repeated offers by Turkey, a NATO member with strong economic ties with Ukraine and Russia, to host. Cavusoglu smiled as he said that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had made 19 phone calls to his counterparts, and he himself had made about 40. "During this period, I spoke with Kuleba six times and Lavrov four times, not including our conversation by SMS,” he said.
Speaking to journalists afterward, Cavusoglu said that the meeting was productive and “extremely civilized.” Describing Turkey's role as not simply host but “facilitator,” he added, “We also raised the need to have unobstructed access to the humanitarian corridors and the graveness of the situation in Mariupol.”
Cavusoglu said that they had also discussed the possibility of having a tripartite meeting at the presidential level. “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is warm toward that, as he had expressed in a phone conversation with President Erdogan,” he said. “President [Vladimir] Putin also told our president that he was not against it in principle.”
While both Ukraine and Russia expressed elaborate thanks to Turkey for the meeting, their takes on the channel's future were nuanced. Kuleba said he hope it would continue and perhaps rise to a higher level. Lavrov remained noncommittal, saying that President Putin would meet with his Ukrainian counterpart “only if it yielded concrete results.”
Evren Balta, an associate professor of international relations at Ozyegin University, said that there is a good chance that the diplomatic channel opened by Turkey will continue. “We see heavy diplomatic traffic at a high level carried out by Ankara,” she said, citing Erdogan’s upcoming meetings with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Germany and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan also spoke on the phone with US President Joe Biden later today. “Turkey enjoys a relationship based on trust with both sides, too. So we may see this process go further,” she told Al-Monitor.
But whatever the future prospects, the tripartite meeting gave a high-profile kickoff to Antalya Diplomacy Forum, which formally starts on Feb. 11. Its illustrious guest list includes the NATO secretary-general, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic, Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani and the foreign ministers of Iraq, Lebanon and Qatar. Another significant and unexpected visitor is Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, a sign of thaw between the two countries.
Erdogan, who will deliver the keynote speech Friday afternoon and meet with Stoltenberg, held a luncheon with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Ankara Thursday. The two have taken up the situation in Ukraine and the question of alternative energy sources to Europe, local media reported.
Erdogan brought up the energy issue during the visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara — the first such visit in 14 years. He stressed that the event marked an opportunity to “revive cooperation on the topic of energy that began before,” referring to past proposals that Turkey and Israel could work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe. But even then, the idea had not gotten much traction due to high costs as well as political concerns — such a transit would have to pass through Syria or the divided island of Cyprus.
Plans for a pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe that includes Greece but excludes Turkey received a severe blow when the United States officially rescinded its support in January. The death of these plans will likely make Erdogan more eager to discuss energy cooperation with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who he will see in Istanbul Sunday. Turkey and Greece, which have held the last round of consultative talks to improve ties on Feb. 22 in Athens, cooperate on energy projects, including a newly built pipeline that transports natural gas from Azerbaijan to Western Europe.