LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – As a potential ruler, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will use his first visit to Ukraine since the war began almost six months ago to explore ways to start exporting grain from Europe’s granary to those in need expand world. UN Secretary-General António Guterres will use his visit to focus on containing the volatile situation at a nuclear power plant occupied by Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy receives the two men on Thursday, far from the front lines in the western city of Lviv, where diplomatic efforts to end the war will also be on the agenda.
Meanwhile, the screams of shells falling still drowned out the whispers of diplomacy. At least 11 people were killed and 40 injured in a series of massive Russian rocket attacks on the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
The attack on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, late Wednesday killed at least seven people, injured 20 others and damaged residential buildings and civilian infrastructure, authorities said.
At the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed on Thursday morning that it had attacked “a temporary base of foreign mercenaries” in Kharkiv, killing 90 of them.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the three leaders would also discuss the situation at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the complex.
In his nightly video address on Wednesday, Zelenskyy reiterated his call for the Russian military to be withdrawn from the plant and emphasized that “only absolute transparency and control of the situation” by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, among others, can guarantee a return to nuclear safety.
Russia played up the threats the plant posed in times of war. Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, the commander of the Russian military’s radiological, chemical and biological defense forces, accused Ukrainian troops of attacking the facility again on Friday, while Guterres will continue to visit Ukraine to accuse Russia of nuclear terrorism. Ukraine has steadfastly denied targeting the facility.
Kirillov said an emergency at the plant could result in “radioactive substances being released into the atmosphere and spread hundreds of kilometers away… An emergency of this nature will cause massive migration and have more catastrophic consequences than the looming gas-power crisis in Europe.”
In such operations, the role of a mediator like Erdogan could become increasingly important.
Erdogan, whose nation is a member of NATO, which supports Ukraine at war, also oversees a shaky economy that increasingly relies on Russia for trade. Against this background, the meetings on Thursday in Lemberg will be a diplomatic tightrope walk. Earlier this month, the Turkish leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same issues.
Erdogan will have an hour-long meeting with Zelenskyy before Guterres joins them both.
Last month, Turkey and the UN helped negotiate a deal that paves the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of corn and other grains that have been stuck in its Black Sea ports since Russia’s February 24 invasion. A separate memorandum between Russia and the UN aimed to remove roadblocks to shipments of Russian food and fertilizer to world markets.
The war and blocked exports have greatly exacerbated the global food crisis, with Ukraine and Russia being major food suppliers.
Turkey is able to help accelerate exports, which until now have been reduced to a trickle. Turkey’s Defense Ministry said more than 622,000 tons of grain had been shipped from Ukrainian ports since the Black Sea deal began.
Grain prices peaked after the invasion of Russia, and while some have since returned to pre-war levels, they remain significantly higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Developing countries are particularly hard hit by supply bottlenecks and high prices. Even if ships are now leaving Russia and Ukraine, the food crisis is not yet over.
Prior to his meetings, Guterres visited the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, the oldest in Ukraine, and praised the role of academic institutions in building democratic institutions.
If grain shipments and nuclear safety are issues on which some progress could be made, nothing substantial was expected from talks of a general end to the conflict.
In March, Turkey hosted a round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators to discuss a possible deal to end hostilities. The talks broke down after the Istanbul meeting, with both sides blaming each other.
Erdogan has performed a delicate balancing act by maintaining good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. Turkey has provided Ukraine with drones, which played an important role in deterring a Russian advance early in the conflict, but has refrained from joining Western sanctions against Russia over the war.
Facing a major economic crisis with official inflation approaching 80%, Turkey is increasingly relying on Russia for trade and tourism. Russian gas supplies 45% of Turkey’s energy needs, and the Russian Nuclear Authority is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
During their meeting in Sochi this month, Putin and Erdogan agreed to strengthen energy, financial and other ties between their countries, and raised concerns in the West that Ankara could help Moscow ease US and European Union sanctions to bypass.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine