ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin told leaders and officials from most African countries Thursday that his nation is making full efforts to avert a global food crisis despite concerns that its withdrawal from a deal allowing grain shipments from Ukraine will cause price spikes.
Putin 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 the Central African Republic in the next three to four months, Putin said.
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 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.
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 Russia-Africa event follows South African authorities announcing 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 attending the summit, 32 other African countries were represented by senior officials or ambassadors. The Kremlin said that 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 is the fate of the Wagner mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin following its brief rebellion against the 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.
A peace proposal for Ukraine that African leaders have tried to pursue is set to be discussed as well.