Photo: Tressler.



When I wrote last week that the Bosphorus may yet have a role to play in the Ukraine-Russia war, I wasn’t far wrong.

First, several mines were found floating in the Bosphorus, having drifted south from the Black Sea. Fortunately, they were diffused and disposed of without incident. And then it was announced that Ukrainian and Russian delegates were meeting in Istanbul to discuss a possible peace settlement. Never mind playing a role; for the moment at least, Istanbul was at the center of the world’s stage.

On the ferry last Tuesday morning, I found myself scanning the smooth waters of the Bosphorus for any stray mines (not that I would know what to do if one was spotted – was I going to cry out “Ahoy! Mine, starboard?”) and looked out at the guilded façade of Dolmabahçe Palace on the distant shore, where the two-day meetings were to take place. President Erdoğan was even in town, and would greet the delegations at 10:30, according to the news reports.

I was excited, nervous. It was shaping up to be a big day, possibly even historic – although not much was expected to come of the talks, even as the war drags into its second month, with thousands of refugees having arrived here in Turkey and elsewhere. The question, heading into the meeting, was whether the two sides could agree to a ceasefire, which reports indicated was probably unlikely.

The meetings were to be held in the presidential working office, a part of the palace that is closed to the public. When I arrived mid-morning, traffic along the main avenue was busy as usual – it was not blocked off. The sidewalk near the working office was barricaded. Police and men in camo, carrying machine guns, were posted in and around the entrance, while other security personnel patted down the journalists and checked their IDs.

Reporters, their TV cameras and other gear, were already in good numbers along the sidewalk. They all looked busy and focused, while I drifted about rather nervously, feeling self-consciously out of place. I passed an Asian TV presenter giving her stand up report, and browsed the other crews, including CNNTurk. Other reporters and their crew were speaking in Russian.

On a slim, stray hope, I walked up to the entrance, where police were checking press credentials. One of them gave me a quick glance and asked to see my press pass, which of course I didn’t have. He shook his head and waved me away from the entrance.

A bulky, rough-shaven man was talking to the security, holding up an empty coffee cup. “Where is trash?” he asked, in a thick accent, pointing at the cup. Naturally, there were no bins or Dumpsters around, no doubt a security precaution against possible explosives.

Approaching the man, who was still clutching the coffee cup, I asked where he was from.

“Russia,” he said, eyeing me with edged curiosity. I quickly introduced myself, and explained that I was a teacher doing a project with my students. (This was half true; at the school we have discussed doing current events projects, which would give students more opportunities to speak about topics outside of the books).

The man stopped me and said he would be right back, before disappearing back through the entrance. He probably just wanted to get rid of me, I thought. But then a moment or two later, a tall, blonde woman in a black power dress came up. She was Russian and spoke in polite, abrupt English. She listened for a second before handing me over to a trim American in a grey suit and dark tie.

The American was Donald Courter, a correspondent and anchor for Russia Today, or RT, the Russia state-controlled international television network. A native of New Jersey and Rutgers University graduate, Courter is in his late twenties and has been living and working in Moscow for the past five years. Listening to him speak briefly with his colleague, I complimented him on his Russian.

“His Russian is perfect!” his colleague agreed.

Courter listened with interest as I outlined the school project. “Actually it’s more of a pilot project,” I said.

“Oh, pilot projects can be the most fun!” he said, with enthusiasm. “Cause at this point you don’t really know where it’s all going.”

That last part was certainly true. I asked Courter if he shared the generally reported consensus that a cease fire was unlikely. He nodded, reminding me that these were actually the fourth round of talks since the war began in late February, and those meetings mostly focused on humanitarian corridors in and around the cities where the fighting is heaviest. Here, Courter was able to give me more insight as to the Russian defense ministry’s perspective, which has framed the invasion of Ukraine not as a territorial grab but rather as a fight against neo-Nazis and other “terror” groups operating within parts of the Ukraine. Of course, many would dispute that claim, but I guessed Courter was just putting things in context.

Switching back to Istanbul, I asked what role he thought Turkey could play in resolving the conflict. Bear in mind, at this point, Erdoğan had already met with the delegates of both sides, and reminded them of Turkey’s neutral role, and said that he expected the talks to “yield significant results.” Erdoğan also had welcomed Russian president Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky (both of whom the Turkish president described as “dear friends”) to come to Turkey at some point in the near future.

Courter again nodded in agreement.

“Well, I think what’s going on here is a great example of how Turkey can play the role of mediator,” he said. “Maintain good relations with both sides. I think that’s the role Erdoğan and Turkey are trying to play here.”

Given that the war could drag on much longer than anyone expected – should nothing come of the talks – I asked if we here in Istanbul had any reason to be concerned, and I brought up the issue of the mines having been found floating in the Bosphorus, which he knew about.

Courter said he doubted Turks would be much affected by a prolonged war, given the country’s neutral status. Western countries, however, could feel the impact of Putin’s recent announcement that so-called “unfriendly countries” will have to pay for gas and oil in rubles (“Because they are putting all these sanctions on Russia and yet getting so much gas and oil from Russia”).

As far as a ceasefire, much remains up for debate on both sides, as has been reported elsewhere. Basically, Zelensky and the Ukrainians have been open to staying neutral (out of NATO or the EU) in exchange for the Russians getting out of their country. I was curious to know if Russians would be agreeable to ending the war on this basis alone, or did they want more than just “neutrality?”

“Well, Russia’s two major demands are neutrality and de-Nazification and de-militarization of Ukraine,” he said. “Because the biggest threat to Russia and to the people of Donbass the past few years has been, specifically, these neo-Fascist military batallions that have been indiscriminately bombing not just the soldiers but the people of Donbass. I’ve been there many times. I saw for myself that they are bombing innocent people and that’s why Russia started this special operation.”

Of course, this last statement would be open to a lot of debate, as Courter himself seemed aware. Critics of the Russian occupation have argued that this whole operation is a land grab, a power maneuver, framed by Putin and his administration as a “war on terror” or “liberation.” (Sound familiar, anyone?).

I thanked Courter for his time, and let him get about doing his job, and also thanked his Russian colleague for videotaping us. She responded with a bright, engaging smile that was probably well known by audiences back home. “You are welcome!” she said, in her Russian way. “Rad pazna komitsa!” (“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”)

At any rate, neither one of us, Courter nor I, had the answers or resolutions. Standing there on the sidewalk outside the palace, alongside all the other journalists, you realize that we’re all just bystanders, no different really from the Istanbullus who were passing nearby, casually going about their day while these momentous events (or non-events, depending on your point of view) were happening behind those closed doors. The meeting was not open to the public or even the press, for that matter.

Still, I was reminded of the old days back in California, sitting through endless public hearings, board and council meetings, waiting for a vote that would be tabled yet another week. Hours and hours of waiting – for nothing. Rushing back to the newsroom to file a report – on nothing. (Aside: later that day, news reports indicated cautious optimism regarding progress, on both sides, regarding some of the humanitarian corridor issues). And yet it was still exciting, being a witness to these important events, feeling part of a greater community. I felt that then and, standing on the sidewalk outside the palace here, I felt it again. And all those other reporters and their crews, from different parts of the world – hopefully they did as well.

I crossed the street, leaving the world and history to its business, and headed to a familiar pub in the nearby Besiktaş neighborhood. It was lunchtime, and the barman was serving tea and pints of beer at the table. Recognizing me, he smiled and brought over a pint of Tuborg.

We chatted for a moment about the big meeting over at the palace. A broad smile crossed his face, that feeling of pride locals have whenever their city is in the news. He praised president Erdoğan and seemed sure that Turkey would find a way to resolve the conflict.

“We love Russian people, we love Ukrainian people!” he said, smiling again, and it reminded me of how much Turks, especially in the south coast, depend on tourists from their neighbors to the north. After the pandemic, coupled with hyperinflation, Turks are anxious to see the tourists pack the beaches of Antalya and Alanya again this summer. So perhaps we can see why this meeting is being held here, at least from the Turks’ point of view. They do have a role to play in bringing about an end to this destructive conflict – and why? Because they have a lot at stake as well. As do I. Heading back home later that day on the ferry, once again I peered out at the bright waters of the afternoon Bosphorus, the thought of drifting stray mines once again crossing my mind. We and all the other boats passing north and south went about our journeys safely.

And that evening, walking with my wife and son in our neighborhood, we stopped and looked out at a gold sun melting into a falling rose-colored sky beyond the calm waters of the Bosphorus at the bottom of the hill. Maybe the Russian and Ukrainian delegates were at this very moment looking up at that same sun setting over the peaceful city. I thought about that, and hoped that as they slept that night their dreams would be of be of peace as well.


CODA: The following day, most news outlets were reporting that Russian forces were pounding the hell out of Ukraine cities, stepping up their offensive. I stopped by the palace. The scene was deserted – no reporters, no security, just pedestrians passing by, going about their usual day. Judging from the news, and from the silence outside the palace, the peace talks were evidently over, for now anyway.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.