Foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine will meet in Turkey on Thursday in the first high-level talks between the two countries since Moscow invaded its neighbour, with Ankara hoping they could mark a turning point in the raging conflict.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has tempered expectations for a ceasefire agreement or other results from the meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a diplomacy forum in Turkey’s southern province of Antalya.
Russia’s invasion has uprooted more than 2 million people in what the United Nations calls the fastest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War Two.
NATO member Turkey had repeatedly offered to mediate between the sides and will host their top two diplomats after weeks of mediation attempts by world powers.
Kuleba urged Lavrov to approach the talks “in good faith, not from a propagandistic perspective.”
“I will say frankly that my expectations of the talks are low,” Kuleba said in a video statement on Wednesday. “We are interested in a ceasefire, liberating our territories and the third point is to resolve all humanitarian issues.”
Moscow has said it is ready for talks with Ukraine, but that all of its demands – including that Kyiv takes a neutral position and drops aspirations of joining the NATO alliance – must be met to end its assault.
Delegations from the two countries have held three rounds of talks previously, two in Belarus and one in Ukraine. Despite some positive signs on humanitarian arrangements, those negotiations have had little impact.
Moscow calls its incursion a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and dislodge leaders it calls “neo-Nazis.” Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss that as baseless pretext for an unprovoked war against a democratic country of 44 million people.
Bringing Lavrov and Kuleba together marks “a step forward” and could escalate diplomacy at higher levels in Moscow, said Mustafa Aydin, professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
“Russia is not yet close to entertaining peace, though it is slowly changing its stance,” he said. “Its initially uncompromising posture is slowly giving way to a negotiation stance though not yet enough for a concrete outcome.”
Turkey shares a maritime border with Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea and has good ties with both. Ankara has called Russia’s invasion unacceptable and appealed for an urgent ceasefire, but has opposed sanctions on Moscow.
While forging close ties with Russia on energy, defence, and trade, and relying heavily on Russian tourists, Turkey has also sold drones to Ukraine, angering Moscow. It also opposes Russian policies in Syria and Libya, as well as its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said both Lavrov and Kuleba had requested that he attend the talks on Thursday, adding he wished the meeting could be a “turning point”.
At the weekend, Turkey and Israel ramped up their push for mediation. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a ceasefire in a call on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held talks with Putin in Moscow at the weekend, and later spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.