Russia has cut off Ukrainian food supplies to the world’s poorest, but hopes Africa’s leaders will turn a blind eye.
When Russia invited African leaders to gather in Sochi in 2019, there was an extraordinary turnout as 43 heads of state attended. On July 27-28, the second Russia-Africa summit will take place in St. Petersburg and there are strong signs that attendance will be much poorer.
Russia’s decision this month to terminate the grain deal — a decision United Nations humanitarian leaders said would cause hunger, starvation, and death — has hardly helped given Africa’s need for food. Ukrainian grain had reached Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Kenya called the decision “a stab in the back.”
Nonetheless, the Kremlin is projecting optimism ahead of the summit. Oleg Ozerov, the head of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum Secretariat, declared that “Africa’s leaders have even higher hopes for the St. Petersburg Summit than for the Sochi event.” Russia’s charge d’affaires in Britain, Alexander Gusarov, also expressed hope that new Russian diplomatic missions and consular posts will emerge in Africa.
Russian President Vladimir Putin can certainly expect his more loyal friends to turn up. Algeria’s Prime Minister Aymen Benabderrahme and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, and authoritarian allies, such as Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki and Zimbabwe’s President Emmanuel Mnangagwa, are expected to attend. But there will also be some notable absentees. The chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah el-Burhan cancelled plans to attend and his deputy Malik Agar will take his place. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not confirmed his attendance, despite co-chairing the Sochi Summit and persistent invitations from Russian officials. (While reports suggest he will attend, his public ambiguity just days before the meeting hardly suggests enthusiasm.)
Russian experts and officials have attributed the absences to Western pressure. Yelena Kharitonova, a senior researcher at Moscow’s Institute of African Studies, recently argued that “opposition to our Russia-Africa project has never been so aggressive as it is now” and framed African attendance as participation in a “new national liberation struggle.” Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev cited Western efforts to dissuade African countries from attending as an example of “neo-colonialism.” Nevertheless, Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine could also limit attendance. Failure isn’t a good look.
While Russia’s summit agenda includes an agreement on “informational security” and against deploying weapons in space, economics will likely take center stage. Russia will try to reassure African countries that the Black Sea grain deal’s demise will not exacerbate food insecurity. The Russian Foreign Ministry has been stating that less than 3% of agricultural products exported via the grain deal reached food-insecure countries like those in Africa. Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. The World Food Programme meanwhile says it has delivered more than 750,000 tons of Ukrainian foodstuffs to those in need, mostly in Africa.
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As food price inflation poses an imminent threat to fragile African economies, Russia will likely use the summit to highlight alternative grain delivery mechanisms. Chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee Leonid Slutsky declared that “Russia will continue projects to support countries suffering from a food crisis, primarily African” and claimed that Moscow would discuss these proposals at the St. Petersburg summit.
One proposal, which was broached by Rossiya-1 propagandist Vladimir Solovyov in mid-April, would involve direct deliveries of Russian agricultural products to Africa without UN oversight. Russia is reportedly trying to loop Qatar and Turkey into this proposal, but neither country has so far accepted Moscow’s overtures. Russia has also pledged to “unlock opportunities for localizing agricultural infrastructure and food production in Africa” though this plan is short on specifics.
Russia will also seek to expand its trade and investment footprint in Sub-Saharan Africa, which stand at just $6bn and $400m respectively. Russia has emphasized the importance of creating “sanctions-proof” Russia-Africa economic cooperation and will use investment deals with isolated regimes, such as Assimi Goita’s junta in Mali (a country reliant on Wagner Group mercenaries accused of summary executions and forced disappearances), to demonstrate the possibilities of this plan. Russia will also advertise its scientific education opportunities for African students, and contrast their successful return home with what it terms the West’s encouragement of a “brain drain” from Africa.
To bolster its commercial presence, the Kremlin will seek to deepen economic ties with countries in East Africa. Leonid Fituni, the deputy director of Moscow’s Institute of African Studies, highlighted inroads by Russian communications companies and agricultural technology projects in Kenya, and discussions are underway to construct a nuclear power plant in Burundi. It is unclear whether these projects will be more successful than the $12.5bn in deals that Russia claimed to strike at Sochi, which largely failed to materialize.
The Russia-Africa Summit promises to be a potent advertisement of the Kremlin’s vision for a multipolar post-Western foreign policy. However, smaller-than-expected attendance and substance-free policy proposals mean it’s more likely to be an allegory of Russia’s diminished standing as a world power.
Dr. Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in March 2021. He is also a geopolitical analyst and commentator, and an Associate Fellow at RUSI.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.