What You Need To Know
- Food security in African countries will be a key topic at the summit in St. Petersburg.
- Why are African countries still keen on forging close economic ties with Russia?
- Russian influence in Africa has also grown with the presence of the Wagner paramilitary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
- While Russia is heavily isolated by the West and pressured by its sanctions, some observers think that Africa’s growing dependency on Moscow will be used by Putin to achieve quick political benefits.
After blocking Ukraine’s grain exports, Moscow will try to portray itself as Africa’s friend at the summit. But some African leaders consider the suspension “a stab in the back.”
The two-day event on July 27 and 28 follows Moscow’s recent decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by Turkey and the UN, which allowed war-torn Ukraine to safely export grain to the African continent from its Black Sea ports. However, Moscow’s suspension of the deal has left African nations worried about the prospects of food shortages. What could be the potential developments at the summit?
African food security high on the agenda
Food security in African countries will be a key topic at the summit in St. Petersburg.
“The creation of logistics corridors and hubs not only for food and fertilisers but also for any other products that the Russian Federation produces will be one of the topics of discussion,” Oleg Ozerov, ambassador at large at the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Russian state agency RIA on Tuesday.
Last week, Moscow announced its decision to withdraw from the grain deal, saying that “instead of helping countries in real need, the West used the grain deal for political blackmail.” The next day Russian missiles were launched on the Ukrainian port of Odesa, where the grain was being stored.
While most African leaders refrained from commenting ahead of the summit, some African countries voiced their anger. Korir Sing’Oei, Kenya’s top official in the Foreign Ministry, described Moscow’s move as a “stab in the back.”
What is Russia doing in the Sahel?
On Tuesday, the Kremlin said that 17 heads of state had confirmed their participation, down from the 45 that took part in the summit in Sochi in 2019. Moscow complained about the Western pressure on African leaders to persuade them to ignore the summit.
There’s a widespread belief that the Kremlin will use the summit to announce a possible restoration of grain supplies, to appear as “the saviour” of the deal. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow would be able to deliver the grain and fertilizers “on a commercial & free-of-charge basis,” bypassing Ukraine.
However, Alexei Tselunov, an expert on African affairs, warns that such a move would not provide long-term stability over food prices.
“Markets won’t work like that; you can’t just isolate Ukraine from its customers and substitute its grain with yours, it was the deal itself, not the amounts of grain available for shipping, that kept prices low,” he told DW.
African leaders, in turn, “may push Russia back to the table with Ukraine, the UN, and Turkey to avoid deepening political instability in their countries,” he said.
Moscow’s grain diplomacy
While Russia is heavily isolated by the West and pressured by its sanctions, some observers think that Africa’s growing dependency on Moscow will be used by Putin to achieve quick political benefits.
“The deal might result in further abstaining from UN votes condemning Russia, pushing African leaders to lobby Western governments to ease economic restrictions… with the ultimate goal of acquiring a more solid position in negotiations with the West when the time is right,” said Tselunov.
In light of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin over war crimes in Ukraine as well as the recent Wagner Group uprising, Moscow will try and project an image of normalcy, observers say.
African countries have been engaged in finding solutions to end the war in Ukraine. In June, a delegation of seven African countries, led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, visited both Kyiv and Moscow to push for negotiations and diplomatic solutions.
“Most African countries condemn the invasion, but they don’t like the moral high ground and the idea you are either with us or against us. That’s what people cringe at,” Amaka Anku, Director of Africa Practice at Eurasia Group, said at a recent conference.
What can African countries get from the summit?
The previous Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019 pursued an ambitious plan to double trade volume and increase Russian investments on the continent. However, the promises in Sochi failed to materialize and the hopes of African leaders seeking investment opportunities were dashed.
Over the past years, trade volume between Russia and Africa has been steady at around $15 to $20 billion (€13-€18 billion). According to analysts, the relatively small trade volumes make Moscow a less attractive economic partner for African countries, especially compared to China and Western countries. Russian investments in Africa are also low, accounting for about 1% of foreign direct investment.
But why are African countries still keen on forging close economic ties with Russia?
The reason lies in the past when the USSR sided with many African countries in their fight for liberation. To this day, nostalgic sentiment shapes Africa’s attitudes towards Moscow.
The African continent’s chronic underfunding is another key issue.
“African countries are starved of capital…the biggest challenge is financing. What you want strategically is to have as many options as possible,” Amaka Anku said.
Arms deals and Wagner mercenaries
Another appealing factor for many African countries and a possible topic of discussion during the summit are arms deals.
Although Russia’s arms business has taken a hit due to the Ukraine war, Russia still remains the top weapons supplier to Africa with a market share of 40%, compared to the US’ share of 16%. China’s share is around 10%, while France accounts for around 8%.
Russian influence in Africa has also grown with the presence of the Wagner paramilitary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The militia is widely seen as an informal foreign policy tool for Moscow and as a security service for conflict-ridden African states. The Wagner Group not only helps to strengthen ties on Moscow’s behalf, but also reaps financial benefits from access to natural resources such as gold, oil, and diamonds.
Despite the rise of Russian influence as well as Western pressure, African countries are eager to be seen as an independent geopolitical actor, Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Russia-Africa ties at the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank, told DW.
“There is a concern within the continent that it has been used as a pawn in global geopolitical disputes, both by the Russians and also by the West. That’s why it is important for African countries to present a unified front in terms of objectives,” he said.