Exclusive: Russians, Ukrainians met in UAE to discuss prisoner swap, ammonia, sources say

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RIYADH, Nov 24 (Reuters) – Representatives from Russia and Ukraine met in the United Arab Emirates last week to discuss the possibility of a prisoner-of-war swap that would be linked to a resumption of Russian ammonia exports, which go to Asia and Africavia a Ukrainian pipeline, three sources with knowledge of the meeting said.

The sources said the talks were brokered by the Arab Gulf state and did not include the UN, despite the UN’s central role in the negotiations on the ongoing initiative to export agricultural products from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Ammonia is used to make fertilizer.

But the talks aim to remove remaining obstacles in the initiative, which was extended last week, and ease global food shortages by lifting the block on Ukrainian and Russian exports, they added.

The sources asked not to be named in order to freely discuss sensitive matters.

The Russian and Ukrainian representatives traveled to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on November 17, where they discussed allowing Russia to resume ammonia exports in exchange for a prisoner swap that would release a large number of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners, the sources said.

Reuters could not immediately determine what progress had 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 to open Russian ammonia exports”, adding “Of course, we are looking for ways to do it at every opportunity”. Bodnar said he was unaware if a meeting took place in the UAE.

Putin said on Wednesday that Russian officials would work to unblock Russian fertilizer stuck in European ports and to resume ammonia exports.

The UAE’s foreign minister did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Lana Nusseibeh, UAE Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, said Abu Dhabi remains firmly committed to helping keep communication channels open, encouraging dialogue and supporting diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine.

“In times of conflict, our collective responsibility is to leave no stone unturned towards identifying and pursuing paths leading to a peaceful and swift resolution of crises,” Nusseibeh said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM.

Russia and Ukraine’s defense and foreign ministries did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Asked if the UN was involved in the negotiations, a spokesman for the organization declined to comment.

WESTERN PRESSURE

The export of Russian ammonia will take place via an existing pipeline to the Black Sea.

The pipeline was designed to pump up to 2.5 million tons of ammonia gas a year from Russia’s Volga region to Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Pivdennyi, known as Yuzhny in Russian, near Odesa for onward shipment to international buyers. It was shut down after Russia sent its troops into Ukraine on February 24.

The ammonia export was not part of the renewal of the UN-backed grain corridor agreement that restored commercial shipping from Ukraine.

Last week, Rebeca Grynspan, secretary-general of the UN agency UNCTAD, which is leading the fertilizer negotiations, said she was optimistic Russia and Ukraine could agree to terms for exporting Russian ammonia through the pipeline, without giving details.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has publicly set several conditions before allowing Russia to resume its ammonia exports via the pipeline, including a prisoner exchange and reopening of the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine have released official figures on how many prisoners of war they have taken since Russia invaded in February. On October 29, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said that Russia had freed a total of 1,031 prisoners since March.

Russia and Ukraine have revealed few details of direct meetings between representatives from the two countries following the abandonment of ceasefire talks in the first few weeks after Moscow’s February 24 invasion.

Abu Dhabi’s effort follows in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, who scored a diplomatic victory by securing the freedom of 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 the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls its “special military operation”.

United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Moscow last month, 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 grain and oilseeds. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and a major supplier of fertilizer to global markets.

Since July, Moscow has repeatedly said that its grain and fertilizer shipments, while not directly targeted by sanctions, are limited because sanctions make it harder for exporters to process payments or obtain vessels and insurance.

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Jonathan Saul in London, additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jon Boyle

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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