ISTANBUL — Turkey is pushing Russia and Ukraine to begin peace talks, hoping to build on recent successful diplomatic initiatives such as the critical grain deal that allows Ukraine to export food through a safe corridor in the war zone.
"Out of the grain corridor, we can open a corridor of peace, and the best way for this is to go from dialogue to peace," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Saturday. Earlier this month, after Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone, Russia reversed its decision to leave the grain deal.
Turkey is maintaining a fine balance between Russia and Ukraine. A NATO ally, Turkey has positioned itself as a neutral player in the Ukraine war — as being pro-Ukrainian without being anti-Russian, analysts say.
On Monday, a White House spokesperson confirmed that Turkey is also where discussions were taking place between CIA chief Bill Burns and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin. However, the spokesperson denied that peace negotiations were on the table.
Burns "is not conducting negotiations of any kind. He is not discussing settlement of the war in Ukraine. He is conveying a message on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, and the risks of escalation to strategic stability. He will also raise the cases of unjustly detained U.S. citizens," the spokesperson said.
Turkey has deepened economic and political ties with Moscow while keeping defense and trade links with Kyiv
Turkey's stated neutral stance has drawn criticism from the West and even raised questions about Turkey's loyalty to NATO. But it has been a mostly successful strategy for Turkey, says Sinan Ulgen, the director of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.
"The Turkish president has been able to reach both Putin and [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelenskyy — one of the very few world leaders who have been able to do that," he says.
Turkey has long had defense cooperation and trade relationships with Ukraine. In the days following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones supplied to Ukraine helped keep the Russian advance at bay, one of the initial turning points in the war.
The Turkish president has urged Russia to return all occupied territories to Ukraine, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
But Turkey has also deepened its economic and political ties with Russia. Turkey chose not to join Western sanctions against Moscow — a major area of concern for the United States and European Union countries. Turkish businesses swooped in to fill the void left by Western businesses in the Russian market, which has helped Turkey gain some leverage. At the same time, Russian trade, tourism and investment have poured into Turkey, encouraged by Erdogan, who is facing a critical election next year and whose economic policies are blamed by many as the reason for Turkey's crippled economy.
The day after Russia rejoined the Black Sea exports deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations, Putin praised Turkish neutrality in a speech to members of Russia's security council and said "without a doubt" that Russia would not get in the way of the grain deal.
"Taking into account Turkey's neutrality in the conflict in general, the possibilities of the grain industry, and Erdogan's efforts to meet the interests of the poorest countries, we will not interfere in any way in the future with the supply of grain from Ukraine to Turkey," Putin said, adding that Russia would continue to cooperate with Turkey.
Now Turkey wants to use its influence with both Ukraine and Russia to get them to talk and negotiate an end to the war.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's chief adviser and spokesperson, has been involved in meetings with both Russian and Ukrainian officials. "Turkey sees room for diplomacy in the war," he says. "Impossible as it may seem."
As much as the war is about Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, he says, there's a larger geopolitical picture for Russia.
"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," Kalin tells NPR. "And this is the main issue, I think, that will occupy us all for the years to come."
Turkey wants to keep communication open to both Russia and Ukraine, and is urging Western allies to do the same.
"Without some kind of a talk and negotiation, without involving and engaging the Russian side, how are we supposed to end this war?" Kalin says.
"You can try to stop this with an overarching peace deal," he says. "Or you go for more localized solutions, you know, a cease-fire here, deescalation here, a prisoner exchange here, a grain deal here. The second model has been working for the last seven, eight months since the beginning of this war."
Turkey doesn't equate engagement with Russia to approval of Russia's actions, he notes. But he acknowledges that ongoing Russian attacks on civilian Ukrainian targets could make it harder for Turkey to maintain its position of neutrality.
Turkey's stance has risks
That is one of several vulnerabilities in Turkey's stance, according to Ulgen. Another is the possibility of economic pain.
"This stance can indeed be jeopardized if and when, and probably when, the West is going to increase and strengthen sanctions against Russia," he says.
Calls for peace talks are increasing. The U.S. has recently nudged Ukraine to consider negotiations eventually.
A senior State Department official, asking not to be named in order to discuss policy options, tells NPR the U.S. believes "the only real solution to this conflict is, in the end, going to be diplomatic. And we continue to work with the Turks on that, on the need to reach a diplomatic end." The official would not go into detail about those efforts.
"But that can only happen when Russia isn't destroying civilian infrastructure and launching these unjust and unjustified attacks on Ukraine."