Erdogan casts himself as a mediator after pushing Putin to return Ukrainian territory

By Cora Engelbrecht and Carlotta Gall

NEW YORK – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the mercurial leader who has tried to mediate with the Kremlin since Russia invaded Ukraine, addressed the United Nations on Tuesday (20) morning, portraying himself as a mediator in the war just after calling for Russia to return captured territory.

“We think the war will never have a triumph, and a fair peace process will not have a loser,” he said in his address on the opening day of the 77th United Nations General Assembly, which was meeting fully in person for the first time in three years. “We are always underlining the significance of diplomacy in the settlement of the dispute.”

Erdogan touted Turkey’s role in the negotiations so far, most notably as a mediator along with the United Nations, in a deal to get grain exports out of Ukraine’s ports — what he called “one of the greatest accomplishments of the United Nations” in years.

“We need a dignified way out of this crisis, through a diplomatic process that is rational, fair and which is applicable,” he said.

In an interview broadcast Monday (19), Erdogan said that Russia should return all Ukrainian territory it has captured, and indicated that negotiations that he has been helping mediate are moving in that direction.

“The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine,” Erdogan said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour.” He was careful not to criticize President Vladimir Putin over his conduct of the war, but drew a clear line on the return of territory.

“This is what is expected,” Erdogan said. “This is what is wanted. Putin has taken certain steps. We have taken certain steps.”

“An invasion cannot be justified,” he added.

Erdogan has positioned himself as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia and hosted preliminary peace talks in Istanbul in March, although those discussions were inconclusive. He at first objected to the efforts by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, delaying their membership process. With UN mediators, he also successfully brokered a deal to allow grain exports out of Ukraine.

In the interview Monday, he said Putin gave him the impression when they met recently in Uzbekistan that “he’s willing to end this as soon as possible.”

“This is a conflict that ended up in casualties,” Erdogan said. “The people are dying, and nobody will be winning at the end of the day.” He declined to comment on who had an advantage at this stage of the conflict, but said that Turkey could be a primary mediator between Russia and Ukraine for any peace talks.

Erdogan also expressed opposition to the annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. He said he had repeatedly asked Moscow to “return Crimea to its rightful owners,” without result.

The relationship between the two autocrats has grown closer in recent years, defined by the fluctuating power dynamics and mutual interests. Turkey has opposed Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, but Erdogan has sought to maintain a close relationship with Putin, seeking to mitigate the fallout of the Ukrainian war in Turkey as he heads into an election year with his country’s economy imploding.

He has refused to apply Western economic sanctions against Russia’s industry and broader economy, and the two leaders have met several times to discuss expanding their diplomatic partnership and to negotiate economic cooperation.

The comments on Monday came as fighting erupted last week on the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave at the centre of a decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia — with Turkey supporting Azerbaijan and Russia having intervened to save Armenia. The deadly clashes have raised the prospect of Russia’s losing influence over the regional conflict after Moscow moved some of its troops from the south Caucasus to Ukraine.

-New York Times

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