UN chief, in Ukraine, seeks to secure nuclear plant and explore peace talks

(From left) Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after their joint news conference in Lviv, Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

LVIV, UKRAINE (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) – The UN chief and the presidents of Turkey and Ukraine on Thursday (Aug 18) discussed ways to end Kyiv's conflict with Russia and secure Europe's largest nuclear power station, which has come under shelling at the front lines.

Speaking with reporters after talks in Ukraine, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was gravely concerned by the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and called for military equipment and personnel to be withdrawn.

After talks in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he, Guterres and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed building on recent positive atmosphere to revive peace negotiations with Russia that took place in Istanbul in March.

In a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey, the two sides recently reached an agreement for Russian to lift a blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments, and exports have started to resume.

“I maintain my belief that the war will come to an end at the negotiation table,” Erdogan said in statements after the meeting broadcast by Turkey’s A Haber. “The focus of the talks was how to ultimately end the war.”

Erdogan, who met with Putin in Sochi two weeks ago, has pushed for a mediating role between the Kremlin and Ukraine. Even as the Turkish leader has maintained his contacts with Putin, his government has maintained military links with Ukraine and supplies Kyiv with drones to help counter the invasion.

Zelensky said peace talks with Moscow are possible only after Ukrainian territories, occupied by Russian troops, are liberated.

While Erdogan has condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine, Turkey has refrained from adopting US and European sanctions against Moscow.

Moscow has come to view Erdogan as a potential go-between in the conflict, according to two people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking, who asked not to be identified because the matter is sensitive.

Kyiv also sees him as a person who has special relations with Putin.

“President Erdogan has a good relationship with both President Zelensky and Putin – the benefits of which was clearly highlighted to us by his instrumental role in securing the grain deal between the two countries,” said David Zaikin, chief executive officer at London-based Key Elements Group. “His efforts could yield results – but ultimately it’s not entirely in his hands.”

In a statement earlier, Zelensky said he discussed with Erdogan what he called Russia’s large-scale theft of grain from occupied territory, putting the figure at almost 500,000 tonnes.

“The leaders agreed that any trade in stolen goods is unacceptable,” the Ukrainian leader said in a statement.

Fears of nuclear catastrophe

The sides also discussed situation at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe and seized by Russia in early March.

Guterres reiterated calls for demilitarisation around the nuclear plant.

“The facility must not be used as part of any military operation. Instead, agreement is urgently needed to re-establish Zaporizhzhia’s purely civilian infrastructure and to ensure the safety of the area,” Guterres said.

Russia, which captured Zaporizhzhia soon after its Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine, said it could shut down the facility – a move Kyiv said would increase the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

Moscow had earlier rejected as “unacceptable” international calls for a demilitarised zone around the nuclear plant, which is still operated by Ukrainian engineers under Russian occupation.

The power station sits on the Russian-controlled south bank of a huge reservoir; Ukrainian forces hold the north bank.

Recent days have seen several incidents of shelling at the plant, which both sides blame on each other.

Ukraine also accuses Russia of using the plant as a shield for its forces to launch strikes across the reservoir on Ukrainian-held cities, which Moscow denies.

Reuters cannot independently confirm the military situation in the area or responsibility for shelling.

Zelensky said after meeting Guterres on Thursday that they had agreed parameters of a possible mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency to the plant.

“Russia should immediately and unconditionally withdraw its forces from the territory of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as well as stopping any provocations and shelling,” he said.

Earlier, he accused Russia of “nuclear blackmail”.

Meanwhile, 17 people were killed and 42 injured in two separate Russian attacks on the major north-eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the regional governor said on Thursday.

Three civilians were killed and 17 wounded in a pre-dawn rocket strike on Thursday, the local emergency service said.

That followed a Russian attack on Kharkiv on Wednesday, in which the emergency service initially said 12 people were killed.

Also on Thursday, at least four explosions hit near a major Russian military airport on the Moscow-controlled Crimean peninsula, three local sources said.

Ukraine has hinted it orchestrated other blasts over the last 10 days at other Russian installations in Crimea.

The sources said Thursday’s explosions were near Russia’s Belbek military airport, north of the Black Sea fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol.

Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev, writing on Telegram, said Russian anti-aircraft forces downed a Ukrainian drone and no damage occurred.

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Recent blasts at Russian targets in Crimea 

Moscow says its aim in Ukraine is to demilitarise the country and protect Russian-speakers on land that Russian President Vladimir Putin says historically belongs to Russia.

Kyiv and the West call it an unprovoked war to conquer Ukraine and erase its thousand-year national identity.

Russia has used Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, to reinforce its troops fighting in other parts of Ukraine with military hardware, a process Kyiv is keen to disrupt ahead of a potential counter-offensive in southern Ukraine.

Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for a recent series of blasts in Crimea. Last week Moscow’s Saki air base was devastated by a series of explosions that destroyed eight warplanes, according to satellite imagery.

Russia said this resulted from an accident, but Kyiv officials suggested it was part of a special operation.

Separately, blasts rocked an ammunition depot on Tuesday at a Russian military base in the north of the Crimean peninsula.

Russia blamed saboteurs, a rare admission that armed groups loyal to Ukraine are damaging military logistics and supply lines on territory it controls. Power lines, an electricity substation, railway infrastructure and some residential housing were also damaged.

Russian state media speculated that saboteurs may have used small drones to bomb the ammunition depot.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said this week that Ukraine’s strategy was to destroy Russian “logistics, supply lines and ammunition depots and other objects of military infrastructure. It’s creating a chaos within their own forces".

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