Putin Promises No-Cost Russian Grain Shipments To 6 African Countries

People watch a TV screen broadcasting Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the plenary session of the Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, July 27, 2023. Image: TASS Host Photo Agency Pool Photo via AP

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA (AP) — Vladimir Putin told leaders and officials from most African countries Thursday that Russia is making every effort to avert a global food crisis despite concerns that its withdrawal from a deal allowing grain shipments from Ukraine will cause price spikes.

The Russian leader spoke at the opening session of a two-day Russia-Africa summit attended by a sharply lower number of African heads of state and government compared with a previous summit in 2019. While discussing the halted Black Sea grain deal, he promised large no-cost shipments of grain to six African countries.

“Our country will continue supporting needy states and regions, in particular, with its humanitarian deliveries. We seek to actively participate in building a fairer system of distribution of resources. We are taking maximum efforts to avert a global food crisis,” Putin said.

“I have already said that our country can replace Ukrainian grain, both on a commercial basis and as grant aid to the neediest African countries, more so since we expect another record harvest this year,” he said.

Russia intends to ship up to 50,000 tons of grain aid to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and Central African Republic in the next three to four months, Putin said.

Without directly referring to Putin’s promise, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took a swipe Thursday at donations of grain to developing nations, saying they cannot compensate for the impact of Moscow’s cutoff of grain exports from Ukraine, which along with Russia is a major supplier to the world market.

The U.N. chief said the United Nations is in contact with Turkey, Ukraine, Russia and other countries to try to reestablish the deal that saw Ukraine export over 32,000 tons of grain, allowing global food prices to drop significantly.

Guterres told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that taking millions of tons of Ukrainian grain out of the global market will lead to higher prices. The higher costs “will be paid by everybody, everywhere, and namely by developing countries and by the vulnerable people in middle income and even developed countries,” he said.

“So, it’s not with a handful of donations to some countries that we correct this dramatic impact that affects everybody, everywhere,” Guterres added.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric noted that Guterres pointed at Russia’s “systematic bombardment” of Ukrainian ports and grain facilities, which he called “a serious escalation.” Dujarric said the bombing will have a serious impact on any resumption of Ukrainian grain exports.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said Russia’s promise to donate grain to African nations did not compensate for pulling out of the deal on Ukrainian grain.

“A handful of donations to some countries cannot replace the millions and millions of tons of grain exports that help stabilize food prices around the world,” Jean-Pierre said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel noted the U.S. pays for about half of the budget for the World Food Program compared to Russia’s contribution of less than 1%. “So it’s pretty clear to us who is actively committed to addressing the dire concerns of food security,” Patel said.

Both Russia and Ukraine are major grain suppliers. They agreed a year ago on a U.N.- and Turkey-brokered deal that reopened three Ukrainian Black Sea ports blocked by fighting and provided assurances that ships entering the ports would not be attacked. Russia declined to renew the agreement last week, complaining that its own exports were being held up.

Promising Russian food exports to Africa is key to Putin’s stated goal of using the summit in St. Petersburg to bolster ties with a continent of 1.3 billion people that is increasingly assertive on the global stage.

Africa’s 54 nations make up the largest voting bloc at the United Nations and have been more divided than any other region on General Assembly resolutions criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The Russian mercenary group Wagner has been active in Mali and Central African Republic, and Eritrea has voted against more U.N. General Assembly resolutions criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than any other African nation.

Burkina Faso is seen by some observers as a likely next target for Wagner, and Zimbabwe has long been bitter about U.S. sanctions against it. Somalia, while a U.S. ally, is often held up as an African country most affected by any restrictions on grain supplies related to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Russia-Africa event follows an annoucnement by South African authorities last week that Putin had agreed not to attend an economic summit in Johannesburg next month because the trip could expose him to arrest under an International Criminal Court warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Putin on Thursday announced other moves to deepen relations with Africa, including increased enrollment of African students in Russian universities, the opening of Russian state news media bureaus in many African countries and a proposed “common information space in Russia and Africa, within which objective, unbiased information about events taking place in the world will be broadcast to Russian and African audiences.”

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said that while only 17 heads of state were at the summit, 32 other African countries were represented by senior officials or ambassadors. The Kremlin said crude Western pressure to discourage African nations from taking part caused the number of leaders taking part to shrink. In 2019, 43 heads of state attended.

Along with grain, another issue likely to be on the agenda was the fate of the Wagner mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin following its brief rebellion against Russia’s top military leadership last month. The private contractor’s future will be an urgent issue for countries such as Sudan, Mali and others that contract with Wagner in exchange for natural resources like gold.

Russian officials and Prigozhin have said the company would continue working in Africa.

Messaging app channels linked to the mercenary chief posted pictures of him meeting with African officials at a St. Petersburg hotel. It wasn’t immediately clear when the meetings took place.

A peace proposal for Ukraine that African leaders have tried to pursue was set to be discussed as well.

Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Tallinn, Estonia, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Chris Megerian and Rebecca Santana in Washington contributed to this report.