Africa: Putin’s Gamble With Ukraine’s Grain Drags On

In a show of largesse, Vladimir Putin promised shipments of grain to a handful of African countries affected by shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. African leaders responded by telling him to end the war.

After the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in spring for war crimes in Ukraine, this week’s summit with African leaders in St. Petersburg served as a rare opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet international counterparts. Seventeen African leaders attended, far fewer than the 43 at the 2019 summit in Sochi. The Kremlin attributed the smaller turnout to Western pressure on African leaders.

Numerous topics were discussed at the summit, including economic, humanitarian and sport issues, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the food insecurity on the African continent took center stage.

The summit kicked off with Putin vowing free grain supplies for six African nations. According to the pledge, 25,000-50,000 tons of grain will be sent to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea in the coming months.

Questioning Putin’s pledges

The pledge left many skeptical.UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a “handful of donations to some countries” would not be enough to solve the food crisis caused by Russia’s withdrawing from a deal to allow Ukraine to continue exporting grain during the war.

Amaka Anku, the director of the Africa practice at the Eurasia Group, said the Kremlin was trying to counter reports that the war in Ukraine was worsening the food crisis in the Global South. Still, she said, the grain would not be insignificant to the nations it was sent to.

“It is clearly part of a propaganda war with the West, but, if delivered, it could make a difference for the countries involved,” Anku said. “It would be, on average, 9-19% of their 2022-23 wheat imports.”

Grain as weapon

In a statement ahead of the summit, Putin claimed that the deal negotiated to allow Ukraine to continue exporting grain during the war was “shamelessly” used by the Western companies, and, as a result, less than 3% of the grain reached countries in dire need. However, Putin failed to mention that the deal had helped stabilize food prices globally after they spiked following his decision to invade Ukraine.

After the Kremlin walked out on the deal, Russia’s military has been destroying grain stocks in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, from where the grain was being shipped worldwide. A recent attack targeting the Danube port, just 200 meters (650 feet) away from the border of NATO member Romania, sparked fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and the alliance.

Western leaders have accused Russia of using grain as a weapon in its war against Ukraine after the Kremlin’s suspension of the deal. Some analysts suggested that, by bypassing Ukraine with direct shipments of grain from Russia, the Kremlin could increase its leverage over African countries, which represent a large voting block at the UN General Assembly.

Weapons deals, too

The Kremlin signed about 40 arms deals with African countries on the sidelines of the summit.

Russia does not have the economic ties with African countries that China and the European Union do. The Kremlin has also invested very little into African economies.

The arms trade is one of the rare areas where the interests of Russia and some African leaders meet. Despite a drop in weapons sales due to the war in Ukraine, Russia still accounts for 40% of weapons exports to Africa, with Angola, Nigeria, Algeria and Mali among its top clients.

“It really depends on what the substance of the military agreements is,” Samuel Ramani, the author of “Russia in Africa,” told DW. “Russia has already signed 20 military agreements. Some of them offer training of police forces and anti-piracy assistance … and some are actually arm deliveries and the deployment of instructors. It remains to be seen in the coming months what unfolds from these agreements.”

A Wagner cameo?

The leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group was the least-expected guest at the summit. However, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who many believed was in exile in Belarus after a short-lived insurrection in June, stole the show on social media after a photo with a delegate from the Central African Republic emerged on Wagner-affiliated social media accounts on the first day of the summit.

Some independent Russian media reports suggested that the photo had been taken in the lobby of a St. Petersburg hotel that is reportedly owned by Prigozhin. DW was unable to clarify when and where the photo was taken.

The Wagner Group had been widely seen as a Kremlin foreign policy tool, dispatched to back authoritarian leaders in exchange for access to mineral resources for Russia. The mercenaries have been blamed for the mass slaughter of civilians in Mali, the Central African Republic and in the Sahel.