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Even as President Putin pledged thousands of tonnes of free grain and wrote off millions in African debt owed to Russia, discussion about the two-day summit in St Petersburg focused instead on the unexpected appearance of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Since leading an unsuccessful 24-hour coup on June 23, the Wagner warlord had supposedly been relocated to Belarus, following a military training deal brokered by Belarussian President Lukashenko.
Prigozhin’s attendance at the Russia-Africa summit blighted Putin’s display of benevolent omnipotence. In St Peterburg, the Russian President pledged up to 50,000 tonnes of free grain to Somalia, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Central African Republic and Eritrea to avoid a “global food crisis”.
This rationale is contradicted by Russia’s recent withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17. The deal has overseen transportation of 32.9 million tonnes of grain through the Black Sea and onto global markets including Africa, while providing 725,000 exports to the World Food Programme.
Less than a week later, Russia launched aerial assaults on key Ukrainian ports on the Danube River, including a four-hour drone attack on July 24.
Putin’s choices for free grain were far from random. Somalia has repeatedly supported Russia on UN resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine; Mali and the Central African Republic are Wagner strongholds. Putin also claimed to have written off Somalia’s $690m debt to Russia, which would bring the total amount of African countries’ debt forgiven to $20bn.
Not all African leaders showed a desire to take the Russian shilling. Only 17 African heads of state attended yesterday’s summit (July 27), fewer than half of the 43 leaders who attended the previous forum in 2019.
With senior officials from the Central African Republic and other African nations photographed shaking hands with Prigozhin, Putin’s attempts to strengthen ties with the continent came with a caveat: the Wagner leader remains immovably integral to the Kremlin’s operations in Africa.