Putin tries to turn Africa against the West – but Africa doesn’t trust him

After Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Brics global summit in South Africa, there can be no doubt that the Russian president has set his sights set on wooing the nations of Africa. In an effort to present Russia as a cooperative ally to, and leader of, the Brics bloc (currently made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, but with 40 more aspiring members) Vladimir Putin pinned the blame on the West’s ‘illegal sanctions regime’ for the global food supply problems experienced by many countries in the wake of his invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian president acknowledged the grain issue was ‘hurting the most vulnerable poor countries first’, but suggested that ‘Russia is deliberately obstructed in the supply of grain and fertilisers abroad and at the same time [the West] are hypocritically accusing us of the current crisis situation on the world market’. 

Putin is looking to capitalise on the power imbalance the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal created

That the grain shortages have been caused by Russia’s refusal to extend a deal allowing the export of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea – which has hit countries in Africa in particular – was something he, unsurprisingly, did not mention.

As Putin’s speech made clear, he has been on the charm offensive in Africa for some time. Last year, he revealed, trade between Russia and African states amounted to the equivalent of £5.3 billion, while bilateral trade between January and June of this year increased by 60 per cent. Now he is looking to capitalise further on the power imbalance the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal created.

‘Our country is and will continue to be a responsible supplier of food to the African continent,’ Putin pledged, promising that Russia would send free grain to six African countries. The Russian president had originally made this promise at the Russia-Africa summit he hosted in St Petersburg last month, saying Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea would be provided with up to 50,000 tonnes of grain in the coming months.

Russia is capable, he said, of ‘replacing Ukrainian grain’, with 11.5 million tonnes exported to Africa in 2022 and a further ten tonnes sent in the first six months of 2023 alone. More would come as Russia apparently expects an ‘excellent harvest this year’. How much of last year’s exports came from the 400,000 tonnes of grain the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence claims Russia has stolen from the country since the beginning of the invasion isn’t clear. 

Now that he is increasingly isolated on the world stage, Putin needs the cooperation of African states to maintain the facade of his position as a global leader. His speech at the summit was peppered with language which aimed to pit those countries against the West.

More than 70 per cent of the grain exported from Ukraine, Putin claimed, went to ‘countries with high and upper middle income levels, including primarily the European Union’. His message to the attendees was obvious: the West doesn’t care about the poorest countries in Africa.

The Brics nations now needed to cooperate to represent the interests of the ‘global majority’, Putin said. He emphasised that the bloc is forecast to surpass the G7 by 1.5 per cent this year when it comes to purchasing power.

Some of the punch was taken out of Putin’s address due to reported technical difficulties that warped the recording of the president’s voice, to the confusion of the attending audience. Putin recorded his speech after refusing to attend the summit in person over fears he would be arrested in South Africa for war crimes in Ukraine. This is because South Africa is a signatory of the International Criminal Court which in March issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president over the abduction of Ukrainian children. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is representing him at the summit instead.

In a sign that the arrest warrant has bruised his ego, Putin couldn’t quite bring himself to admit this was the reason for his absence – despite it being the elephant in the room. Contradicting his efforts to intensify relations with the bloc, last month he downplayed his absence, saying his presence in South Africa was not ‘more important than my presence here, in Russia.’

Source: The Spectator