Turkey offers to evacuate Mariupol fighters despite disagreements
By Carlotta Gall
Turkey is working to negotiate an exit for the wounded Ukrainian soldiers sheltering in the bunkers of a steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, but its efforts have been complicated by the fluidity of the fighting on the ground and because neither Russia nor Ukraine has given clearance for the plan, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson said Saturday.
In an unusually candid interview by teleconference call from Istanbul, the spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey had been talking to Ukraine and Russia, trying to find an agreement even as both sides kept changing their positions.
“It really depends how the Russians see the war situation on the ground and the negotiations,” he said. “The battle on the ground shapes the negotiations. Positions also change from one day to another. It is very fluid.”
As the last stand in Mariupol, the southern city that has been left in ruins by weeks of shelling, the Azovstal plant has become a powerful symbol for Ukrainians, and the fate of the remaining fighters — many wounded, and all of them surviving on ever more meager rations — is being closely watched.
It also has symbolic importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces more than two months into the war have yet to seal their victory by seizing the last holdout in the strategic port.
Turkey has had a ship waiting for five to six weeks in Istanbul to evacuate the Ukrainians by sea from the port of Berdyansk, and to treat the wounded and rehabilitate them in Turkey, 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 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 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 Kalin said Erdogan had talked to Putin five times since the invasion. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also talked to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, last month.
Turkey has received more and more appeals recently to intercede in the evacuation of soldiers and civilians from Mariupol, including from United Nations officials, the soldiers themselves, and some soldiers’ wives, who Saturday held a news conference in Kyiv to urge Chinese President Xi Jinping to persuade Putin to accept Turkey’s evacuation offer.
Kalin welcomed the calls. “We take these appeals very seriously,” he said. “It’s a war zone, and if you save one person, that’s really a blessing. It is not a solution to the war, but it is one good thing you do under the circumstances.”
He said the Ukrainians have told Turkey that about 1,500 soldiers needed evacuating, with about 450 of them wounded. Evacuating so many people is logistically difficult, Kalin said.
“For us to do it, the conditions on the ground must be there,” he said. “We want to make sure it is safe, because once they start moving during that whole operation, whether it takes six hours or 10 hours for them to reach their destination, a port or somewhere, there has to be an absolute calm, safety and security.”
Turkey has experience negotiating evacuations from war zones, which it successfully did several times during Syria’s civil war from cities besieged by Russian and Syrian troops.
Turkey is also supportive of an alternative plan to evacuate the wounded by land to another Ukrainian city, Kalin said. The United Nations and the Red Cross have successfully evacuated hundreds of civilians from the steel plant in recent weeks by land routes.
Ukraine has also offered to exchange the soldiers for Russian prisoners of war, which Kalin said Russia had noted but not commented on.
The evacuation of soldiers was complicated in particular by the inclusion of members of the Azov battalion, a former far-right militia now formally integrated into the Ukrainian army. Russia has branded them as Nazis, and Putin has said the war was intended to carry out the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.
“I understand the Ukrainian position that all of them belong to the Ukrainian army, with other groups, and they want them to all be able to get out,” Kalin said. “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 at times.”