The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine are set for face-to-face talks in Turkey in the first high-level contact between the two sides since Moscow invaded its ex-Soviet neighbor last month.
Officials from Kyiv and Moscow have held several rounds of discussions, but the meeting on Thursday in the southern city of Antalya represents the first time Russia has sent a minister for discussions on the crisis.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba landed in Antalya for negotiations “on Russia ceasing its hostilities and ending its war against Ukraine”, foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted.
His Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov was also in Turkey.
Dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow has so far yielded several ceasefires and humanitarian corridors to evacuate residents, but Russia has been accused of breaking those agreements.
Kuleba said in a Facebook video his expectations were “limited” as Russia continues its bombing campaign and siege of major Ukrainian cities. The success of the discussions would depend on “what instructions and directives Lavrov is under” from the Kremlin.
“I am not pinning any great hopes on them, but we will try and get the most out of [the talks]”Said Kuleba.
Kuleba said his team would be “pressing for the maximum”.
“I will demand a ceasefire to liberate our territories, and of course to resolve the humanitarian issues, or rather catastrophes created by the Russian military,” he said.
“Owing to the actions of the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as the coordinated actions with partners regarding sanctions, I am going to these negotiations in a strong position.”
Moscow has said it is ready for talks with Ukraine, but 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.
It is the first trip abroad for Lavrov since Russia was isolated by the Western world with biting sanctions that have also targeted President Vladimir Putin’s long-serving top diplomat.
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,” Aydin said. “Its initially uncompromising posture is slowly giving way to a negotiation stance though not yet enough for a concrete outcome.”
Soner Cagaptay, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, echoed the comments.
“I do not think that we will see a breakthrough in Antalya between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia… because I think this is really not a moment for Putin to accept humility and step down,” he said.
“But I think this is still a significant achievement for Turkish diplomats, the fact that they can get the foreign ministers of these two parties in brutal conflict sit together around a table in a neutral location, it’s a very significant achievement. And we could get a short-term ceasefire out of this to allow for civilians to be evacuated. That would be even a bigger accomplishment. ”
Turkey’s balancing act
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 effect.
The latest sit-down comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed for Ankara to play a mediation role.
“We are working to stop this crisis from transforming into a tragedy,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “I hope the meeting between the ministers will open the way to a permanent ceasefire.”
The Russian and Ukrainian ministers will be joined at Thursday’s meeting by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, with NATO member Turkey keen to maintain strong relations with both sides despite the conflict.
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, defense 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.
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.
Russia’s invasion has uprooted more than two million people in what the United Nations calls the fastest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.