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Turkey uses its influence with both Ukraine and Russia to get them to negotiate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Turkey has maintained close ties with Russia as it takes a middle road on the war in Ukraine. That concerns the U.S. But Turkish officials say it's useful. They cite Russia's recent decision to resume cooperation with grain shipments from Ukraine, which came after a call between the Turkish and Russian presidents. Turkey has also mediated prisoner exchanges. Now it wants to get Ukraine and Russia talking about ways to end the war. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Pro-Ukrainian without being anti-Russian. That's how Turkish officials have described the country's position.

SINAN ULGEN: That strategy has essentially paid off for Turkey.

TANIS: That's Sinan Ulgen, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Turkey has supported Ukraine, including sending armed drones that helped slow the Russian advance early in the war. And Turkey's urged Russia to return all occupied territories to Ukraine, including Crimea, which Russia took in 2014. But Ulgen notes...

ULGEN: The Turkish president has been able to meet both Putin and Zelenskyy, one of the very few world leaders who have been able to do that.

TANIS: That's because Turkey's also refused to join in on Western sanctions against Russia. Over the months, trade between the two countries has increased steeply, drawing criticism from the West and even questions of Turkey's loyalty to NATO. But it has given Turkey leverage over Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, is involved in meetings with both Russian and Ukrainian officials. He told NPR that as much as the war is about Ukrainian territorial integrity for Russia, he says, there's a larger geopolitical picture.

IBRAHIM KALIN: Russia, whether you like it or not, whether you agree with their arguments or not, is interested in finding and reaching a new deal with the West and more particularly with the United States. And this is the main issue, I think, that will occupy us all for the years to come.

TANIS: Kalin says Turkey sees room for diplomacy in the war, impossible as it may seem. And it wants to keep lines open to both countries, urging Western allies to do the same.

KALIN: We have to play this role because at the end of the day, if everyone burns bridges with both sides, with the Russians or Ukrainians or some others, then who is going to talk to them?

TANIS: In a war like this, Kalin says, there are two ways to bring it to an end.

KALIN: You can try to stop this with an overarching peace deal, or you go for, you know, more localized solutions - you know, ceasefire here, de-escalation here, a prisoner exchange here, a green deal here. The second model has been working for the last seven, eight months.

TANIS: Turkish leaders hope to build on the success of the deal that got Russia and Ukraine cooperating to allow grain shipments through the war zone and hope to get them negotiating for peace. But even Kalin acknowledges that ongoing Russian attacks on civilian targets make it harder for Turkey to maintain its position. And Sinan Ulgen with the Carnegie Endowment says there could be more Western pressure on Turkey.

ULGEN: This stance can indeed be jeopardized if and when the West is going to increase and strengthen sanctions against Russia.

TANIS: The U.S. has nudged Ukraine to consider negotiations eventually, and U.S. and Russian officials are meeting in Turkey this week to discuss American citizens held in Russia and nuclear stability. A senior State Department official asking not to be named while discussing policy options recently told NPR that the U.S. would work with Turkey's effort for a diplomatic solution but that, quote, "it can only happen when Russia is not destroying civilian infrastructure and launching unjustified attacks on Ukraine." Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.