Black Sea grain talks in Geneva: what's at stake?

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, left, leaves the UN building after a meeting with UN officials for talks on the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Geneva, March 13, 2023. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Talks are currently being held in Geneva to extend the Black Sea grain deal. But there is more to the agreement than meets the eye: Moscow wants money, and Kyiv wants its prisoners of war.

This week is as decisive as it is tense. Russia and Ukraine have started a new arm wrestling match over the renewal of the UN-backed Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has allowed grain exports from Ukraine to resume and expires on 18 March 2023. Once again, the food security of a part of the world hangs in the balance.

On Monday 13 March, a Russian delegation met with UN officials in Geneva to discuss the terms of the new agreement. At the end of the day, Moscow accepted the principle of an extension, but for a limited duration of 60 days.

The facts

The agreement, reached in July 2022 under the leadership of Turkey and the UN, allowed grain exports from Ukraine which had been obstructed by the war to resume. It was extended last November but is due to expire later this week.

Under the deal, nearly 18 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have left Ukrainian ports as of January 2023, 40 per cent of which went to low- and middle-income countries, according to the initiative's Joint Coordination Centre.

The resumption of exports has reassured cereal market players, most notably wheat and sunflower, and reduced speculation after prices had soared to unprecedented levels.

Where are talks at?

Russia is in favour of renewing the agreement but only for 60 days – half the term of the previous renewal.

“The Russian side (...) is not opposed to a new extension of the initiative (...) but only for 60 days,” Sergei Vershinin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said in a statement following talks with the UN on Monday. “Our future position will be determined by tangible progress in the normalisation of our agricultural exports, not in words, but in deeds.”

Turkey, which facilitated the deal alongside the UN, said in a defence ministry statement on Monday that Moscow had agreed to back a 60-day extension to the deal but that talks continued.

Kyiv rejected the Russian push for a reduced 60-day renewal, Reuters reported.

The negotiations are only at the beginning, with a deadline set for later this week. The Russian delegation is expected to stay in Geneva for several days, while talks with Ukraine are taking place over the phone.

The exact content of the discussions between the two sides is not clear. But according to a source close to the matter, contacted by, one point in particular is at the heart of the negotiations.

Reopening of an ammonia pipeline

Russia is seeking the reopening of a pipeline for ammonia, the main ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. The pipeline links Togliatti in the Volga region to the Ukrainian port of Pivdennyi, near Odessa on the Black Sea. From there, Russian ammonia is shipped to fertiliser producers in the Mediterranean basin, such as Turkey and Morocco, Africa and southeast Asia. According to our source, the gas giant has set an ultimatum: there will be no extension beyond 60 days unless the ammonia pipeline is opened.

Vershinin mentioned he is aiming for a “supply of ammonia via the Togliatti-Odessa gas pipeline” after his meeting with the UN on 13 March. This request had already been made in September 2022, as the pipeline is a strategic route for the main ammonia exporter. Allowing up to 2.5 million tonnes of ammonia to be transported each year, it is a multi-billion Swiss franc market for Moscow.

These ammonia exports stopped at the beginning of the war, and were not previously covered by the Black Sea Initiative agreement. Russia has therefore decided to take a tougher line.

To a lesser extent, the Russian delegation also expects “progress on bank payments, transport logistics, insurance and the unfreezing of financial activities,” Vershinin said following the talks.

Moscow has repeatedly complained about obstacles to the export of grain and fertilisers, due to more complicated procedures, higher freight insurance costs and fears that companies will be affected by the sanctions.

Agreement on prisoner exchange within reach

Kyiv's official position on the grain agreement remains unknown. But several demands have been made, according to our source. “The Ukrainians have little to gain from (the opening of the gas pipeline). So they are asking for several quid pro quos,” they said.

These include a prisoner exchange, access to Ukrainian prisoners and abducted children, the opening of the port of Mykolaiv (a public demand made by the Ukrainian deputy minister of infrastructure last month) and concessions on the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

It is the prisoner exchange in particular that could play a tipping point in the negotiations, according to our source. “An agreement on prisoners could be reached in the next few days,” they said. “The United Arab Emirates are involved in the negotiations.” This was already the case in November 2022, when the agreement was extended.

“If the deal is big enough, it could give the Ukrainians what they need to accept the pipeline,” the source added.

Whether either side will get their way in these latest talks remains unclear. But one thing is certain, according to our source: “Switzerland remains the best place for international negotiations.” While Swiss neutrality may have been lately put to the test,  “Geneva is still Geneva”, they concluded.

This article originally appeared in French in It has been adapted and translated by Geneva Solutions. Articles translated from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.