Of the 49 African countries that sent delegations to St Petersburg for the second Russia-Africa summit on 27–28 July, only 17 heads of state attended. This is down significantly from the first such summit in 2019 – and much lower than the number of leaders who attended the December 2022 US-Africa summit.
At the 2019 summit, Putin had sought to rekindle relations established during the Cold War and pledged to double trade with African countries to $40 billion in five years – but trade has stalled at $18 billion. This time, Moscow pledged to wipe out debts worth $23 billion and announced military cooperation agreements with over 40 African countries.
Building a closer relationship with Burkina Faso’s leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore, also appears to have been a priority for Moscow as it seeks to deepen its engagement in the country. Putin met with Traore on the sidelines of the summit and Traore was also one of a handful of African leaders who attended the annual naval parade in St Petersburg with Putin after the summit.
An African peace plan for Ukraine
African states are ambivalent about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the majority support territorial integrity, they have been more divided than any other region on UN resolutions criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
At the summit, some African leaders spoke favourably of Russia. Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa voiced support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine but added that ‘victims of sanctions must cooperate’. Malian military junta leader, Assimi Goïta, and Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra – whose countries are increasingly reliant on Wagner Group mercenaries – also expressed support for Russia, while Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denied the existence of a Russia-Ukraine war and instead spoke of a NATO war on Russia.
However, African leaders have presented a proposal to help defuse the conflict, which Putin has acknowledged could be a basis for peace – although he claimed attacks by Kyiv made a cessation of hostilities ‘virtually impossible’.
Russia’s divisions were also visible in St Petersburg. The founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was seen on the fringes of the summit and heard in an audio recording hailing Niger’s military coup as good news and offering his fighters’ services to bring order. Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, condemned the coup and called for a return to constitutional order.
Restoring the Black Sea Grain Initiative
The main issue for African attendees was the impact of the Ukraine war on African economies, especially food inflation. A delegation of African leaders and officials from six countries visited Kyiv and St Petersburg in June, lobbying for an extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and advocating a peace deal. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a blockade of the country’s Black Sea ports, trapping 20 million tonnes of grain meant for export. This caused world food prices to soar and threatened to create shortages, particularly in African countries reliant on food imports from Ukraine.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was a deal struck in July 2022 between Russia and Ukraine – brokered by Turkey and the UN – allowing cargo ships to travel along a corridor in the Black Sea. Almost 33 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been exported as a result of this deal. But Russia pulled out of the grain deal on 17 July, which has dismayed many African leaders. Russia’s withdrawal from the deal was a ‘stab on the back’ for drought-hit countries, Kenya’s government has said.
Prior to the St Petersburg summit, it looked like Moscow had decided to end the deal to inflict extra economic damage on Ukraine. Putin insisted that rising food prices were a consequence of Western policy mistakes that predated the war. At the summit, he announced Russia could replace Ukrainian grain exports commercially and that he would give 25,000–50,000 tonnes of free grain over the next several months to six African countries: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Zimbabwe and famine-hit Somalia, and announced he would also give away fertilizers stored in Baltic ports.