As Ukraine-Russia peace talks kick off in Istanbul, Erdogan urges ‘end to tragedy’

Turkish president tells delegates from both sides that the whole world is waiting for good news to emerge from planned two days of negotiations

In this photo provided by Turkish Presidency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, gives a speech to welcome the Russian, left, and Ukrainian delegations ahead of their talks, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 29, 2022. (Turkish Presidency via AP)
In this photo provided by Turkish Presidency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, gives a speech to welcome the Russian, left, and Ukrainian delegations ahead of their talks, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 29, 2022. (Turkish Presidency via AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire as Russian and Ukrainian delegations met face to face in Istanbul on Tuesday, resuming their talks on Russia’s invasion of its neighbor last month.

In a speech he delivered at the start of negotiations, Erdogan said progress in the talks could pave the way for a meeting between the leaders of the two countries.

“We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace. Prolonging the conflict is not in anyone’s interest,” he said. “As members of the delegations you have taken on a historic responsibility. The whole world is awaiting the good news that will come from you.”

“The two parties have legitimate concerns, it’s possible to reach a solution acceptable to the international community,” Erdogan said. “It’s up to the two parties to put an end to this tragedy,” he insisted, adding that the “extension of the conflict is in no one’s interest.”

It is the first time that the two countries’ delegations, which arrived in Turkey on Monday, met after several rounds of talks by videoconference.

The delegations are scheduled to hold two days of talks in a government building adjacent to the 19th-century Ottoman palace, Dolmabahce, on the shores of the Bosporus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was also due to meet the Ukrainian and Russian delegations on Tuesday.

Earlier talks between the sides, held in person in Belarus or by video, failed to make progress on ending the monthlong war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.

Turkey previously hosted on March 10 a first meeting between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Those talks in the southern city of Antalya failed to produce a ceasefire or make any other visible progress.

Turkey, which shares a Black Sea coast with both Russia and Ukraine, is seeking to maintain good relations with both and has offered to mediate since the start of the war.

Ankara is a traditional ally of Kyiv’s and has supplied the country with Bayraktar drones, which Ukraine has deployed in the conflict.

But it is also seeking to stay on good terms with Russia, on which Turkey relies heavily for gas imports and tourism revenues.

Turkey is also working with France and Greece on a “humanitarian operation” to evacuate people from the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which has been pounded by Russian forces.

A screen capture from unconfirmed video said to show the destruction in Mariupol caused by the Russian siege and bombardment of the southern Ukrainian city, March 2022. (Twitter)

Ahead of the current talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, in comments that might lend momentum to negotiations.

Zelensky said over the weekend that compromise might be possible over “the complex issue of Donbas,” the hotly contested region in the country’s east. It’s unclear how that might be reconciled with his stance that “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt.”

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelensky, for his part, has stressed that Ukraine needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.

As fighting raged throughout the country, the mayor of Irpin, which has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, said late Monday that the city had been “liberated” from Russian forces.

A senior US defense official said the US believes the Ukrainians have also retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in the east.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss US intelligence assessments, said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near the capital, Kyiv, and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

The official said Russia appeared to be deemphasizing ground operations near Kyiv and concentrating more on the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years.

Late last week, with its forces bogged down in parts of the country, Russia seemed to scale back its war aims, saying its main goal was gaining control of the Donbas.

The possible face-saving exit strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country, forcing it to surrender a swath of its territory.

In recent days, Ukrainian troops have pushed the Russians back in other sectors.

In the city of Makariv, near a strategic highway west of the capital, Associated Press reporters saw the carcass of a Russian rocket launcher, a burned Russian truck, the body of a Russian soldier and a destroyed Ukrainian tank after fighting there a few days ago.

In the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, the AP witnessed positions abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers who had moved farther west, but no sign of Russian troops.

Ukrainian soldiers watch debris from a Russian tank after recent fights in the town of Trostsyanets, some 400km (250 miles) east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kyiv and in the east, Ukraine’s military said in a post on Tuesday.

It said the Orthodox church – the country’s majority religion – was the most affected but that mosques, synagogues, Protestant churches and religious schools were also destroyed.

A cyberattack knocked Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom almost completely offline on Monday. The chief of Ukraine’s state service for special communication, Yurii Shchyhol, blamed “the enemy” without specifically naming Russia and said most customers were cut off from telephone, internet and mobile service to ensure coverage for Ukraine’s military.

Also Monday, an oil depot in western Ukraine’s Rivne region was hit by a missile, the governor said, in the second attack on oil facilities in the region near the Polish border.

In other developments, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said at least 144 children have died in the war so far, most in Kyiv. The tally did not give a number for the besieged eastern city of Mariupol.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News said it has suspended its operations in Russia and Belarus. Customers in both countries won’t be able to access any Bloomberg financial products and trading functions for Russian securities were disabled in line with international sanctions, it said. Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $40 million, meanwhile, in support of Ukrainians and refugees.

Also, The Group of Seven major economies rejected a Kremlin demand that some countries pay in rubles for Russia’s natural gas. That demand appeared designed to support the Russian currency, which is under pressure from Western sanctions.

A soldier stands on a bridge destroyed by the Ukrainian army to prevent the passage of Russian tanks near Brovary, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Putin’s ground forces have become bogged down because of stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, combined with what Western officials say are Russian tactical missteps, poor morale, shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, and other problems. Moscow has resorted to pummeling Ukrainian cities with artillery and airstrikes.

The Pentagon may have to ask Congress for additional money to support Ukraine’s battle against Russia’s invasion, including replenishing America’s arsenal for weapons sent to Kyiv, officials said Monday.

Rolling out the Defense Department’s $773 billion request for fiscal 2023, Pentagon leaders said the budget was finalized before the invasion so it has no specific money for the war. Congress approved a $13.5 billion emergency funding package in early March.

The leaders said it was too early to predict how quickly Ukrainian forces will use up the weapons and ammunition already being provided, and how much the US will need to replace what it sends to Ukraine, such as Stinger and Javelin missiles or body armor and other equipment.

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