These days, an international meeting of ombudsmen from different countries is taking place in Ankara which could give Ukraine specific cases of the release of civilians and soldiers from Russian captivity. The Turkish side acts as a mediator in the process, the way it acted in the negotiations on the conclusion and extension of the "grain initiative" and the release of the Azov Regiment commanders. Türkiye explains its non-adherence to the sanctions against the Russian Federation by its role as a mediator, tirelessly continuing to insist on ceasefire and peace negotiations, offering its territory for such talks. Ukraine’s stance is well-known: any peace negotiations are possible after the 1991 borders are restored.
In the exclusive interview with Ukrinform, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Türkiye Vasyl Bodnar talks about the transformation of Türkiye's approach to peace, the operation of the "grain corridor", the ways to counter the export of grain stolen in Ukraine, the possible impact of the Türkiye election results on bilateral relations, the construction of Bayraktar drone production plant, Türkiye's position on sanctions, and the prospects of creating a gas hub.
TÜRKIYE INSISTS ON PEACE NEGOTIATIONS IN ATTEMPT TO FIND WAYS TO DIALOGUE
- Mr. Ambassador, the highest-level political figures of Türkiye insist on the inevitability of peace negotiations, the desire to "soften relations" and so on. What is the reason for this rhetoric and do they really believe it’s real, in particular against the background of the clear stance of Kyiv: no peace without complete de-occupation?
- Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye has been making considerable efforts for a peaceful settlement of the ongoing war. This approach was demonstrated during the organization of negotiations in Istanbul in March 2022, it is followed in Ankara and now in communication at the level of heads of state and authorized persons. It all started with approaches about humanitarian truces, "peace above everything", but now Türkiye's position clearly shows the need to observe the principle of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The latest statements by the official representatives of Türkiye clearly indicate an understanding of the need to liberate all Ukrainian territories. In this context, a proposal was voiced that Russia should be the first to initiate a ceasefire, which could become a basis for the further withdrawal of troops from the territory of Ukraine. This is an attempt to find ways to dialogue, but in no way to impose some positions. This is one of the proposals of the mediator.
- At Christmas, the Russian side demonstrated what it means by "ceasefire"...
- We saw very well that the "Christmas offer" from the Russian Federation had nothing to do with the truce since the shelling continued and Russia did not observe the ceasefire regime it had announced. It was an attempt to create a media image: we offer, and the Ukrainian side refuses. In fact, this is not the case, our condition is clear: the liberation of Ukrainian territories, the ceasefire, and then we start negotiations. And we will not give up this position, the Turkish side understands this very well and takes it into account when searching for ways to convince the Russian authorities. Türkiye sees this process in stages: ceasefire and withdrawal of troops. In our view, the ceasefire is impossible because Russia will definitely try to deceive both us and Türkiye as a mediator, use this time to strengthen its positions, and then refuse to withdraw troops. Therefore, we perceive this as a stage proposal before reaching a decision on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine. Of course, this does not mean that the Russian side will immediately agree to such conditions and will be ready to implement everything.
"GRAIN AGREEMENT" COULD NEVER HAVE BEEN CONCLUDED AND EXTENDED WITHOUT PARTICIPATION OF TÜRKIYE
- Ankara calls the launch of the Black Sea Grain Initiative one of the biggest successes of the Turkish mediation between Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, Russia threatened not to extend it after 120 days, and now it is slowing down the passage of ships by all means, in particular, through its representatives in the coordination center. How can the issue of speeding up the inspection of ships be resolved?
- It should be underscored that the agreement could never have been concluded and extended without the participation of Türkiye. We remember how clear and focused the position of the Turkish side was on the extension of the agreement when Russia tried to withdraw from it after the attack on the Black Sea Fleet. Currently, the Russian side is really slowing down inspections of the ships due to the insufficient number of inspection teams that can enter the ships. We suggested that their number should be increased. Both the Turkish side and the UN are supportive, while the Russian side is holding back. The only option here is strengthened pressure from negotiators on the Russian side to increase the number of these inspection groups and speed up the passage of ships through the straits.
The Russian side is not interested because it does not participate in this grain initiative with ships, grain, or anything else. Their representatives are only in the joint coordination center. We are trying to ensure that the ships can export a much larger range of products, preferably without restrictions, and that the Russian side cannot slow down or interrupt this maritime communication.
On the other hand, we understand that Russia can terminate the operation of this corridor by using its naval or air forces. Therefore, it is now important for us to use what we have and put pressure on the Russian side through intermediaries to increase the number of inspection teams.
- Observers of traffic through the Bosphorus point out that Russia continues to export allegedly stolen Ukrainian grain through the Bosphorus to Syria, and transports military cargoes, disguising them as civilian. Is there a mechanism to stop this traffic?
- In fact, in this case, the Turkish side has no direct influence on these ships since the Montreux Convention regulates the regime of the straits and does not provide for the right to stop civilian ships without appropriate grounds. The reason to stop them may be the illegal transportation of goods or the transportation of goods that threaten the security of the Republic of Türkiye. If the documents for a ship and its cargo are legal, then the Turkish side has no mechanisms to stop the passage of these ships. Moreover, the Turkish side has not joined the sanctions since 2014, and thus any restrictions on conventional commercial vessels cannot be applied in the Black Sea straits.
We work with our other partners who can, through insurance companies, shipping companies, international organizations, try to influence the countries receiving the grain to prevent them from entering their ports. Currently, most European ports are closed for Russian ships. The small volumes that Russia tries to transport do not meet its export needs and do not provide surplus profits from the sale of agricultural products and fertilizers. Although there is no way to physically block this movement, we track each such ship, inform the Turkish side and our partners about its movement, and call for measures to be taken.
- Last July, a ship from occupied Berdiansk anchored near the Turkish coast with a cargo of stolen grain. Zhibek Zholy ship was released despite the request of the Ukrainian side to arrest it. Were there other similar cases and how did the Turkish side explain the release of Zhibek Zholy?
- As for this ship, the situation is somewhat different, and the main argument of the Turkish side is that Zhibek Zholy did not enter a port, remaining anchored in territorial waters. In connection with our appeals and requests, a decision was made to send it back. Of course, it caused an outcry but we got over this situation and we hope that there will be no repetitions. What made it unique is that it was a ship from the port of Berdiansk, which was occupied in 2022, and it was tried to be unloaded in the port of Samsun with Ukrainian documents. This was a direct violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine as documents from the occupied port were tried to be presented as legal. We were not completely satisfied with the Turkish side's decision regarding this ship. However, the work continued, and thanks to the joint efforts of the Ukrainian and Turkish parties, progress was made in the prevention of ships with stolen Ukrainian grain from entering the ports of Türkiye.
- Currently, Türkiye and Russia intend to process Russian grain in Türkiye and send it in the form of flour to underdeveloped African countries. Can Russia try to arrange the shipment of grain stolen in Ukraine in this way?
- Now we have means of control, law enforcement agencies collect information on each ship. We established communication between the Ministry of Justice of Türkiye and our Prosecutor General’s Office on the cases that we have already recorded. And we keep monitoring. If ships depart from Sevastopol or Kerch to the port of "Kavkaz" and receive Russian documents there, we will react to this, we will try to prevent our grain from entering Turkish ports under the guise of Russian. The Turkish side feels the sensitivity of this issue and is convinced that the situations that took place in the summer will not recur.
RUNWAY WAS TECHNICALLY PREPARED AND AIR FORCE WAS NOTIFIED FOR SECRET DEPARTURE OF TURKISH AIRCRAFT FROM BORYSPIL
- Two Turkish cargo aircraft, which were at the Boryspil airport since the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, returned to Türkiye. How was it made possible?
- This is the result of the interaction between the defense ministries of the two states. There had already been attempts to take those aircraft out, but there were certain circumstances (security or technical). I know that security corridors were agreed upon since the airspace over Ukraine is controlled by our air defense forces. First, the necessary engineering and technical works were carried out at the airport so that the planes could take off. Second, the time was agreed upon and the air defense units were notified of the passage of the aircraft. Third, it was a secret that was only revealed when the aircraft arrived. This demonstrates the successful work of the ministries of defense and special services that conducted this operation, the level of trust between the defense departments of our countries. I think we will find out the details after the war.
- Another success of Türkiye as a mediator is the release of Azov Regiment commanders who will stay in Türkiye until the end of the war. How do they feel, what do they do, how is their health?
- They feel good, but of course, they are eager to go into action. I cannot say much for safety reasons, but we hope that the time will come and they will return home, will promote rebuilding the defense potential of Ukraine, will play their role in the restoration of our state, and certainly, in the investigation into the crimes committed by the Russian Federation. Of course, their experience is one of the most valuable and unique. They performed many heroic deeds during the defense of Mariupol, survived terrible captivity. They are a legend that inspires Ukrainians.
- Is there hope for other exchanges?
- Exchanges are ongoing, a special center was created to coordinate this work. It's a difficult story because the Russian Federation does not value its service members. Therefore, they do not always agree to the exchanges we offer. They do not yet support our all-for-all exchange offer. Türkiye is ready to provide assistance. Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets is currently visiting Ankara, he has already met with the Turkish ombudsman and the Russian ombudswoman.
PRESIDENTIAL AND PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN TÜRKIYE WILL NOT CHANGE APPROACHES TO DEVELOPMENT OF RELATIONS WITH UKRAINE
- Currently, the main attention in Türkiye’s media landscape is focused on upcoming elections which will take place this year. Can the election results affect Ukraine–Türkiye relations and in what way?
- Attention to the elections is natural, and it is not surprising that pre-election rhetoric in Türkiye is more focused on internal than external issues. Our task is to maintain the existing level of strategic partnership. I do not see any signs that could indicate changes in any approach to the development of cooperation with Ukraine. Fortunately, none of the political forces in the political struggle uses the topic of Ukraine to somehow question the existing level of interaction between Ukraine and Türkiye.
The elections will end, but the interests will remain. The interests of strategic cooperation are always relevant as they are based on practical things: increasing trade, strengthening defense capabilities, enhancing cultural exchange, etc. These are mutual interests. We must also pay tribute to President of the Republic of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has made many efforts to strengthen the strategic partnership with Ukraine. His role is one of the key ones. We will see after the elections what will be the vision of other political forces on the development of relations with Ukraine.
- The USA provides Ukraine with Patriot air defense systems as part of a new aid package. These are the systems that Türkiye was never able to get from the US and had to purchase Russian S-400. Could the transfer of Patriot systems affect our relations with Türkiye?
- These are unrelated things. We managed to get our systems into the tenth month of the war. People are dying here, infrastructure is suffering. We have a terrible war. Many countries would like to have Patriot systems. Türkiye has a Patriot air defense system battery located in the south. The decision to purchase S-400 is their decision, its use is their business. Strengthening air defense is relevant for many countries, and the example of how Ukrainian air defense forces protect our sky with outdated means is the experience that could be interesting for the Turkish side in the future. And Türkiye's use of various systems, including domestic ones, is a field for cooperation, not competition.
BAYKAR FACTORY WILL BE BUILT IN UKRAINE – PROJECT IMPLEMENTATION IS ONGOING
- Despite the war, Baykar company declared its intention to build a plant for the production of Bayraktar drones in Ukraine. At what stage is this project now? Is construction currently frozen, is it planned after the war, or have works already begun?
- The plant will definitely be built and the works are definitely not frozen. About a month ago, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine completed the ratification of the agreement on the establishment of this plant. This agreement must be ratified by the Turkish side, then ratification documents must be exchanged for the agreement to enter into force. This is the formal side of the matter.
Baykar Makina already created an enterprise, bought land, prepared communications, designed a plant and a research and training center. Unfortunately, the war made adjustments to the original plans for the plant. So far, the pace planned for preparing project documentation, obtaining licenses, and ratifying the agreement is maintained, even taking into account the ongoing hostilities. It is clear that this is a defense industry facility, there is a threat that it may come under a missile attack. And the aggressor state warned about that. According to preliminary calculations, the plant should be built and the first drones should come off the conveyors within two years.
- The Motor Sich sign appeared in the center of Ankara. Has the company opened its office in Türkiye?
- Yes, the premises for the office were chosen in the first half of the year, and they did it relying on strategic cooperation with Türkiye. This office should work towards strengthening ties and cooperation. The Turkish market is attractive for Motor Sich and other enterprises of our defense industry. I hope that the new management of the company will adhere to the pro-Ukrainian position and have more opportunities to implement projects for the benefit of Ukraine and in the interests of its defense.
TÜRKIYE CAN BECOME A GAS HUB BUT NOT FOR RUSSIAN GAS SUPPLIES
- Türkiye is currently actively working to create an energy hub in its territory. What are the prospects of this project, in particular for replacing Russian gas in the European market?
- If we look at the sources of energy supplies to Türkiye, they are already quite diversified. The option of creating such a hub is theoretically possible and can be profitable. For Ukraine, this can also be a positive story as it will be an additional route for energy supply to us... Either through the straits or through the existing Trans-Balkan gas pipeline. If we are talking about the expansion of the Russian gas supply network, there are many questions since Türkiye is already almost 50% dependent on Russian gas. The EU already decided not to buy more gas from Russia than they currently receive. Therefore, without EU consent to receive this gas, it will not be sold anywhere.
Second, for the successful implementation of this plan, two threads of the gas pipeline need to be completed in addition to the two existing ones on TurkStream. Third, Western companies, which have the experience and technology and which laid the first two threads at the bottom of the Black Sea, are unlikely to dare to do it now.
The fourth issue is funding. To implement such a project and develop the infrastructure, billions in investments are needed. If, for example, the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline or gas from the Persian Gulf region is involved, then many countries will be interested in this. If we are talking only about Russian gas, it seems to me that it will be difficult to fully implement this project at least until the war ends and Russia is held to account.
- Türkiye has not joined the sanctions, justifying it with its role as a mediator. The West praises the success of the mediation but does not praise the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. If put on the scales, what Türkiye’s position is more attractive and advantageous for Ukraine?
- We have been discussing the issue of sanctions with the Turkish side since the beginning of the aggression in 2014. Türkiye has a clear position that they will join only the sanctions adopted by the UN. The Turkish side adheres to this position even amid the full-scale invasion. Of course, it would be better for Ukraine if Türkiye joined the sanctions.
On the other hand, Türkiye has its own policy and we respect their position. Of course, we always discuss topics that concern and interest us. From the Turkish side's point of view, joining the sanctions will make it impossible to mediate or use opportunities for political dialogue. And this is one of the main arguments why the Turkish side reserves the right not to join the sanctions. At the same time, there is a clear position that by not joining the sanctions, the Turkish side will not contribute to the circumvention of the sanctions. The issue is sensitive, we continue the discussion so that our interests are also taken into account. Türkiye does not stand aside: the straits were closed in accordance with the Montreux Convention, the airspace for Russian flights to Syria was also closed, insurance restrictions were introduced, etc.
Türkiye stands by the fact that the sanctions are primarily harmful to it, as well as to its mediation. The dialogue on this and other issues is actively ongoing, just like the joint development of our bilateral relations.
Olha Budnyk, Ankara.