©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey Vasyl Bodnar speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey February 24, 2022. REUTERS/Cagla Gurdogan
By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Pavel Polityuk and Jonathan Saul
RIYADH (Reuters) – Representatives from Russia and Ukraine met in the UAE last week to discuss the possibility of a prisoner of war swap that would be linked to a resumption of Russian exports of ammonia, which go to Asia and Africa via a Ukrainian pipeline, three sources familiar with the meeting said.
The sources said the talks were brokered by the Gulf Arab state and did not include the United Nations, despite the United Nations’ central role in negotiating the ongoing initiative to export agricultural products from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports. ammonia is used to make fertilizer.
However, the talks aim to remove remaining hurdles in the initiative extended last week and ease global food shortages by unblocking Ukrainian and Russian exports, they added.
The sources asked not to be named to freely discuss sensitive issues.
Russian and Ukrainian representatives visited the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on Nov. 17, where they discussed allowing Russia to resume ammonia exports in exchange for a prisoner swap that would release large numbers of prisoners Ukrainians and Russians, the sources said.
Reuters could not immediately tell what progress has been made in the talks.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, told Reuters that “the release of our prisoners of war is part of the negotiations on the opening of Russian exports of ammonia”, adding “Obviously we look for ways to do it at every opportunity”. Bodnar said he did not know if a meeting took place in the United Arab Emirates.
Putin said Wednesday that Russian officials would work to unblock Russian fertilizers stuck in European ports and to resume ammonia exports.
The UAE foreign ministry, defense and foreign ministries of Russia and Ukraine did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Asked whether the United Nations was involved in the talks, a spokesman for the organization declined to comment.
Russia’s export of ammonia would be via an existing pipeline to the Black Sea.
The pipeline was designed to pump up to 2.5 million tons of gaseous ammonia annually from Russia’s Volga region to the Ukrainian port of Pivdennyi, known as Yuzhny in Russian, near Odessa, for onward shipment to international buyers. It was shut down after Russia sent its troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The export of ammonia was not part of the renewal of the UN-backed grain corridor deal that restored commercial shipments from Ukraine.
Last week, Rebeca Grynspan, secretary general of the United Nations agency UNCTAD, which is leading the negotiations on fertilizers, said she was optimistic that Russia and Ukraine could agree terms for exporting Russian ammonia via pipeline, without providing details.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has publicly set several conditions before allowing Russia to resume its ammonia exports via pipeline, including a prisoner exchange and the reopening of the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine has released official figures on how many POWs they have taken since Russia invaded in February. On October 29, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said Russia had released a total of 1,031 prisoners since March.
Russia and Ukraine have revealed few details of face-to-face meetings between representatives of the two countries following the abandonment of ceasefire talks in the first weeks following the February 24 invasion of Moscow.
Abu Dhabi’s efforts follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, which won a diplomatic victory by granting freedom to foreign fighters captured in Ukraine in September.
The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, is a member of the OPEC+ oil alliance that includes Russia and has also maintained good ties with Moscow despite Western pressure to help isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls his “special military operation”.
UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan last month visited Moscow where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the possibility of Abu Dhabi brokering an ammonia deal, two of the sources said.
Ukraine is a major producer of grains and oilseeds. Russia is the world’s largest grain exporter and a major supplier of fertilizers to global markets.
Since July, Moscow has repeatedly said its grain and fertilizer shipments, while not directly subject to sanctions, are limited because the sanctions make it harder for exporters to process payments or obtain ships and insurance.