EXCLUSIVE- Russians and Ukrainians met in UAE to discuss prisoner swap, ammonia, sources say


By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Pavel Polityuk and Jonathan Saul

RIYADH, November 24 (Reuters)Representatives of Russia and Ukraine met in the United Arab Emirates last week to discuss the possibility of a prisoner of war exchange 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 mediated by the Gulf Arab state and did not include the United Nations despite the central role of the UN in negotiating the ongoing initiative to export agricultural products from three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. Ammonia is used to make fertilizer.

However, the talks aim to remove remaining obstacles to 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 in order to freely discuss sensitive topics.

Russian and Ukrainian representatives visited Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on November 17, where they discussed the possibility of Russia resuming ammonia exports in exchange for a prisoner exchange that would free a large number of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners, the sources said.

Reuters could not immediately establish progress in the talks.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, told Reuters that “the release of our prisoners of war is part of the negotiations on opening Russian ammonia exports”, adding “Of course we are looking for ways to do so at every opportunity.” Bodnar said he did not know if a meeting took place in the United Arab Emirates.

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

The UAE Foreign Ministry did not respond to Reuters request for comment.

Lana Nusseibeh, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, said Abu Dhabi remained firmly committed to helping keep communication channels open, encouraging dialogue and supporting diplomacy to end to the war in Ukraine.

“In times of conflict, our collective responsibility is to leave no stone unturned to identify and pursue pathways that lead to peaceful and rapid resolution of crises,” Nusseibeh said in a statement carried by the official WAM news agency.

The Russian and Ukrainian defense and foreign ministries did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

When asked if the United Nations was involved in the talks, a spokesperson for the organization declined to comment.

WESTERN PRESSURE

The export of Russian ammonia would be via an existing pipeline to the Black Sea.

The pipeline was designed to pump up to 2.5 million tonnes of ammonia gas per year from Russia’s Volga region to the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Pivdennyi, known as Yuzhny in Russian, near Odessa, to then be shipped to international buyers. It was closed after Russia sent its troops to Ukraine on February 24.

The ammonia export was not part of the renewal of the UN-backed Grains 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 that 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 ammonia exports through the pipeline, including a prisoner swap and the reopening of the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has released official figures on the number of POWs taken since the Russian invasion in February. On October 29, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said that since March Russia had released a total of 1,031 prisoners.

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

Abu Dhabi’s efforts follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, which scored a diplomatic victory guaranteeing the freedom of foreign fighters captured in Ukraine in September.

The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, is a member of the OPEC+ oil alliance which includes Russia and has also maintained good ties with Moscow despite Western pressure to help isolate Russia following the invasion of Russia. Ukraine, which Moscow calls its “special military operation”.

UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Moscow last month where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the possibility of Abu Dhabi mediating an ammonia deal, said two of the sources.

Ukraine is a major producer of grains and oilseeds. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and a major supplier of fertilizers to world markets.

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

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

((aziz.elyaakoubi@thomsonreuters.com; +966508650537; Reuters Messaging: aziz.elyaakoubi.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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