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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (GUARDIAN) — Moscow’s war in Ukraine and its exit from a UN-brokered grain deal will loom over this week’s Russia-Africa summit, as Vladimir Putin tries to woo African leaders seeking economic relief amid signs the Kremlin may be ready to seriously address peace talks with Kyiv.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that just 17 African heads of state would be attending. This is far fewer than at its 2019 conference or at similar summits held elsewhere, including a meeting in December with Joe Biden that dozens of African leaders flew to Washington DC to attend.
In an effort to exert Russia’s influence in Africa, the Kremlin claimed on Wednesday the St Petersburg summit was being undercut by western powers as it sought out diplomatic allies in its standoff over Ukraine.
Asked about the low number of attenders, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said: “This is absolutely blatant, brazen interference by the United States, France and other states through their diplomatic missions in African countries and their attempts to put pressure on the leadership of these countries in order to prevent their active participation in the forum.”
Under sanctions from much of the western world and driven into isolation, Russia has emphasised its plans to court the global south, claiming the country’s future lies in Asia and Africa, where projected growth will present extraordinary economic opportunities.
But Putin’s promises in 2019 to increase trade with Africa to $40bn (£31bn) a year have come up far short. Russia’s economic influence in African countries is still dwarfed by other powers such as China and is being hampered by new western sanctions.
Russia’s military is targeting grain infrastructure at Ukrainian port cities, after its decision to pull out from a UN- brokered deal that allowed the export of grain and other products from Ukraine through the Black Sea to markets, many of them in Africa. The deal was devised to alleviate soaring global food prices, and Russia blamed its collapse on the west blocking Russian exports of grain and fertilisers.
Nonetheless, some African leaders, facing extraordinary pressures at home and fearing a possible civil backlash cause by rising grain prices, have spoken out angrily over Russia’s exit from the deal.
In a tweet last week, Korir Sing’Oei, the head of Kenya’s foreign affairs ministry, said: “The decision by Russia to exit the Black Sea grain initiative is a stab on the back at global food security prices and disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa already impacted by drought.”
In terms of tangibles, Russia is likely to focus on food and fuel security in Africa and a range of other niche services that can entice African elites to maintain closer ties to Moscow.
Pauline Bax, the deputy director of the Africa programme at the International Crisis Group thinktank, said: “Grain and fuel supplies will be the main talking points at the summit, Moscow doesn’t have much else to offer. It looks like Putin will give some promises on grain supplies after he withdrew from the deal.”
Cameron Hudson, a senior associate for the Africa programme of the Washington-based CSIS thinktank, also said he expected Moscow to announce bilateral grain offers in an effort to assuage the pressure on African leaders and also to find markets for Russia’s stranded products.
Putin has suggested a scheme to have Qatar pay to ship the grain to Turkey, where it could later be sent on to poorer African countries. However, it is unclear whether the intermediary countries would agree.
Some leaders such as South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will come to the summit seeking to revive a peace initiative they have previously delivered to both Putin and to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Nonetheless, Russia did have advantages in Africa, said Hudson, including a long history of wooing local elites and a popular message in portraying Moscow as an anti-imperialist force resisting the west, despite Russia’s own imperialist history.
Unlikely to be discussed publicly is the role of the Wagner mercenary group, which is most active in Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan. The group is popular with some leaders because it can be wielded flexibly with little oversight, including for its brutal methods. The Kremlin has pledged that it will not reduce Wagner’s activities in Africa even after the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, launched an abortive mutiny in Russia last month.