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Putin’s stumble with lacklustre Russia-Africa Summit presents an opportunity

Ukraine and the West should reach out to African countries for the benefit of all three after Russia comes short in its attempt to attract the continents attention.

August 4, 2023 - Aleksandra Klitina Lesia Dubenko - Articles and Commentary

Photo of the participants of the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in July 2023. Photo: Sergei Bobylev, Tass / Russian Presidential Administration

For a meeting promised to showcase deep roots of friendship, the recent Africa-Russia summit in St. Petersburg ended up suggesting the opposite. Problems emerged from the outset. In 2019, top delegations from 45 African states were sent to Sochi. This year, only 49 of the 54 invitees opted to attend the venue, with just 17 of them represented by presidents. Those officials who did attend ended up demonstrating limited enthusiasm for Russia’s initiatives – and much more interest in demanding change.

As expected, the summit’s main focus was on access to grain. Just days before the meeting Russia unilaterally killed off the deal by which Ukraine had been able to export grain through the Black Sea. The effects were felt immediately, with higher global food prices particularly affecting the most vulnerable African countries.

On the first day of the summit, African Union chairperson Azali Assoumani labelled the disruption of Ukrainian grain exports a vital issue and promised to discuss their reinstatement with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah Al-Sisi likewise called on Putin to extend the grain deal with Ukraine, saying it was “essential to reach agreement”.

In response, Putin offered to supply Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Eritrea and Zimbabwe with 25 – 50,000 tons of free grain each over the next three to four months. Or as Russia’s Deputy UN Rep Dmitry Polyanskiy dubbed it: “Grain deal. Russian version. No strings attached.”

Despite its grandiosity, this move had a limited impact on the African leaders, with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa even publicly turning down the offer, stating that there is no grain deficit in his country.

A much bigger blow to Russia’s plans was arguably struck by Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairman of the African Union Commission. Speaking to Vladimir Putin in person alongside several other leaders, he not only emphasised the need to extend the grain deal “for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular”, but also stated bluntly that “this war must end”. He added that “it can only end on the basis of justice and reason” and that “the disruptions of energy and grain supplies must end immediately”.

The significance of these statements shouldn’t be underestimated as they send a clear signal to the Kremlin that Africa understands Russia bears the responsibility for the war and the supply disruptions it has caused. This is made clear by the fact that Putin felt it necessary to justify his claim that Russia cannot stop its war against Ukraine.

Worse still, Russia’s president also had to accept the presence of PMC Wagner’s Evgeny Prigozhin on the sidelines of the summit, where he was seen shaking hands with the Central African Republic’s (CAR) ambassador to Russia, Leon Dodonu- Punagaza.

Prigozhin’s failed mutiny in June still echoes in the Kremlin. Seeing him cosying up to the Ambassador of the CAR, where PMC Wagner has at least 5,000 fighters, can hardly have been pleasant for Putin, who is now trying to distance himself from the paramilitary entity and reassert his power in the region.

While some agreements were reached during the summit, with Russia for example expressing its willingness to donate 2 million US dollars through the UN to buy food for Mali, overall the summit appeared lacklustre.

Putin’s attempt to blame “Western neo-colonialism” for hindering food supplies to African countries failed to find widespread support among the continent’s leaders. This was not least thanks to the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres’s decision to call out Russia for the grain deal’s termination – an important factor for Africa where the UN’s voice still carries significant weight.

The African leaders’ reaction to Putin’s ‘no strings attached’ grain also showed that this theatrical move alone cannot solve the food problems caused by the cancelling of the grain deal. Ukraine exported 33 million tons of grain under it, making it a key supplier of this vital commodity. African leaders seem to clearly understand that the absence of Ukrainian grain on world markets pushes up prices significantly.

Other Russian attempts at diplomacy also fell flat. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova attempted to add a touch of geopolitical solemnity to the summit, telling the African representatives that Russian men were giving their lives at the front so that Africans and people the world over could be free. However, this did not seem to improve the general mood, and was instead met with quizzical looks. 

While the immediate results of the gathering almost certainly fell short of the Kremlin’s expectations, it is the wider implications that are paramount. Russia’s policy toward less wealthy states – a mix of authoritarian encouragement, disinformation, military assistance and bribes – has long competed with the West’s policy of aid in return for reforms.

The fact that the allure of Russia’s approach has its limits bodes well for both Ukraine and the West, offering an opportunity to seize on. Without a doubt, Ukraine and the West have found it difficult to get African countries and the Global South on board. African governments have refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow, many flirt with the Kremlin, while some welcome Wagner’s influence. Nonetheless, they are not entirely convinced by Putin’s offers or narratives.

The results of UN votes condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of its territories has proved this in the past. The latest summit only serves to underscore African states’ political autonomy.

The EU remains Africa’s biggest donor and trading, investment and security partner, while the US plays a similar but lesser role. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s commodities are essential to curtailing food price increases that will affect African countries in the coming years. All three can and must use this opportunity to reach out to African countries to ensure more robust collaboration on an equal footing that will truly be beneficial to the world.

Aleksandra Klitina is a Ukraine-based economist and journalist. She is currently working as the senior economic correspondent at Ukrinform.

Lesia Dubenko is a Ukraine-based analyst and journalist who has written for the Financial Times, New Eastern Europe, European Pravda, the Atlantic Council and the Kyiv Post.

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