By Radina Gigova, Anna Chernova, Sophie Tanno and Nimi Princewill, CNN
(CNN) — A summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and African leaders began in St. Petersburg on Thursday, with a far lower turnout than previous years.
Putin has been seeking to strengthen ties with African countries and offered to send free grain to the continent, something the UN warned would not make up for Russia pulling out of a crucial grain deal. Russia has also been targeting Ukrainian ports.
Just 17 heads of African states are attending this year, the Kremlin has confirmed, less than half of the 43 heads of state that attended the 2019 conference.
In the run-up to the event, the Kremlin fumed over the poor turnout, and accused the United States and its Western allies of putting “unprecedented pressure” on African countries in an attempt to derail the summit.
Among those absent is Kenyan President William Ruto, whose government has been critical of Russia’s recent decision to withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal, describing the move as a “stab in the back of global food security prices.”
Moscow made the decision to withdraw from the deal – which ensured the safe export of Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world – on July 17, again sparking fears over global food supplies, particularly in parts of Africa that are reliant on exports from Russia and Ukraine.
Many African countries rely heavily on on Russia and Ukraine for their grain imports. Between 90-100% of the wheat Somalia and Eritrea needs comes from the two countries, UN data shows.
The shortage of grains has worsened food insecurity on the continent and shot up food prices, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Some African politicians – further than simply not attending the summit – have expressed grave concerns about Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine.
“I don’t think that this moment in time is a good time for summits in Russia. Because Russia is involved in a war, a conflict,” said Raila Odinga, the Kenyan opposition leader.
“Africa needs to take a very firm stance on this issue. It’s a question of right and wrong. Therefore, my view is that we cannot be neutral in the place of an aggression. You must take a stand one way or another,” Odinga said.
Despite the food crisis, Russia’s has allies in Africa. During a vote by the UN last year condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Eritrea was one of only four nations globally that openly endorsed the invasion. Others were Belarus, North Korea, and Syria.
But attitudes vary. While 17 others on the continent, including South Africa voted to abstain. Eight other African nations did not put in a vote at all. A further 28 African states voted to condemn Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.
Last month, an African delegation led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led a “peace mission” to Russia and Ukraine to broker peace talks between the warring nations. The peace mission did not achieve its desired goal, with the delegation unable to persuade Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to end the war – now in its second year.
Putin makes free grain pledge
The African states being represented at the St. Petersburg summit will be keen to sway Russia into rejoining the grain deal, and Putin has courted African leaders for years in a deliberate effort to broaden Moscow’s global influence. At the last summit in 2019, Russia announced arms deals worth billions of dollars for the continent, along with a plan to double its trade volume with the region.
Russia’s Wagner mercenaries have also been deployed in some African states. A CNN investigation from 2022 showed how an elaborate Russian scheme was plundering Sudan’s riches in a bid to fortify Russia against Western sanctions and to buttress Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.
Putin is working against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, which has driven the country into diplomatic isolation and prompted heavy sanctions from the West. He enjoys more support from some African nations, however, some of whom are yet to condemn the invasion.
On Thursday, the Russian president told the delegation of African leaders that the continent will become one of Moscow’s key partners “in a new multipolar world.”
“Russia is still a reliable supplier of food to Africa,” Putin said, adding he would send grain free of charge to six African nations in the next few months.
He repeated his complaints about the grain deal, saying promises to Russia had not been met, and called the West “hypocritical”, arguing it was blaming Russia for food insecurity but at the same time hampering exports through sanctions.
Next month South Africa will host a BRICS economic bloc summit in Johannesburg. Putin, however, will not be present at that event and will be represented instead by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ramaphosa’s office said Putin’s absence from the BRICS summit was decided “by mutual agreement.” In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova over alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
South Africa is bound by the Rome statute, the treaty that governs the ICC, and is obligated to arrest individuals indicted by The Hague court.
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