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African leaders have long been reluctant to criticize Russia and now that President Vladimir Putin has canceled a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain, they know they depend more than ever on Moscow’s largesse to feed millions at risk of starvation.
After canceling the deal on Monday, Moscow unleashed four nights of attacks on Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Chornomorsk, two major export facilities, damaging the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain. In the latest assault, a barrage of Kalibr missiles hit the barns of a farm in Odessa on Thursday night.
“Russia’s decision to exit the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a stab wound [in] the back, » tweeted Abraham Korir Sing’Oei, senior official of the Foreign Ministry of Kenya, one of the African countries that in recent months has received donations of Russian fertilizers.
The resulting rise in global food prices « has a disproportionate impact on countries in the Horn of Africa already affected by drought, » he added.
However, Sing’Oei’s was a solitary voice. Instead of berating Moscow, African leaders have remained largely silent as they prepare to attend a Putin-hosted summit in St. Petersburg next week. This follows a African mission led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month in Kiev and St. Petersburg in an attempt to broker peace.
The diplomatic stakes could hardly be higher.
Putin was due to make a return visit to Africa next month to attend a BRICS emerging economies summit in Johannesburg. However, that trip was canceled « by mutual agreement » to avoid exposing the head of the Kremlin to the risk of being arrested with an indictment for war crimes issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Without the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered a year ago by the United Nations and Turkey that allowed Ukraine to export 33 million tons of grains and oilseeds, many African governments now have nowhere else to turn but Russia.
“It will be based on political alignments,” said Samuel Ramani, an Oxford academic and author of a book on Russia’s resurgent influence in Africa.
Comparing Russia’s tactics to blackmail, Ramani added: “They will offer free grain to some, they will sell to others. It is wheat diplomacy to all intents and purposes.
Russia said Monday it would no longer ensure the safety of ships crossing a transit corridor as it announced its official withdrawal from the deal, declaring the northwestern Black Sea once again « temporarily dangerous ». He followed up with threats to fire on all ships crossing the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports, setting off a tit-for-tat warning from Kiev that it would do the same to all ships sailing to Russian-controlled Black Sea ports.
In the 12 months it has been in operation, the grain deal has helped reduce global food prices by up to 20% from the peak set in the aftermath of the full-scale invasion of Russia in February 2022. It has also supplied humanitarian agencies with vital supplies.
However, Russia has repeatedly said it has not seen the benefits of the triple deal.
Although Western sanctions reduce exemptions for food and fertilizers, the Kremlin says sanctions against Russian individuals and its state agricultural bank are hampering its own exports, thereby contravening a second deal it agreed last July under which the United Nations pledged to facilitate these exports for a three-year period.
The Kremlin She said Wednesday that it will only resume talks on the Black Sea grain deal if the United Nations implements this part of the deal within the next three months.
Another of Moscow’s criticisms is that shipments of Ukrainian grain are mainly directed towards rich countries; not to those in Africa and Asia who bear the brunt of the global food crisis.
Over the past year, a quarter of all grain and oilseeds shipped under the initiative went to China, the largest recipient, while about 18% went to Spain and 10% to Turkey, according to UN data.
That’s not the whole story, however. Trade data from the World Bank Shows that much of the grain exported to Turkey is processed and re-exported, in the form of flour, pasta and other products, to Africa and the Middle East.
More importantly, all the grain flowing into global markets drives prices down, wherever it goes, against the UN and others.
“It’s not a question of where the Black Sea food actually goes; it’s a matter of it [bringing] international prices are falling, so whether you are a rich country or a poor country, you can benefit,” said Arif Husain, chief economist at the United Nations World Food Programme, speaking recently at an event on the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Rome.
These arguments have been at the center of a months-long propaganda battle between Moscow and Kiev over who can rightly claim to feed the world and who is responsible for soaring food prices.
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Kremlin’s narrative that Western sanctions are to blame has quickly caught on in many parts of Africa.
Ukraine has tried to counter this with a humanitarian food programmeWheat from Ukraine launched in November 2022, but shiploads of fertilizer donated to countries including Malawi and Kenya served to sweeten the Kremlin’s message.
“A true friend does not know the time. A true friend comes to the rescue when you need it most. And you just proved it to us,” said Malawi Agriculture Minister Sam Dalitso Kawale after receiving a gift of fertilizer from Russian firm Uralchem in March.
Feeling the pinch
Now countries like Malawi need friends in Moscow more than ever. The end of the grain deal not only cuts them off from Ukrainian grain flows, leaving them dependent on Russian supplies, but also drives up prices.
Moscow’s withdrawal from the deal is unlikely to have the same impact on prices as its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Over the past year, Ukraine has opened up alternative export routes, and a slowdown in shipments moving under the initiative also meant commodity markets expected Moscow to abandon the deal.
While Ukraine can continue to export grain via alternative routes, these incur additional logistics and transportation costs, which lower prices for Ukrainian farmers on the one hand and increase costs for buyers on the other.
For food-insecure countries in the Horn of Africa, even a small price hike could spell disaster, said Shashwat Saraf, emergency director in East Africa for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Domestic production has declined due to conflict and severe drought, leaving the region increasingly dependent on food imports and food aid. Therefore, rising food prices will hit hard, he said, adding that traders already report « feeling the hit. »
As the cost of food rises, the IRC and other humanitarian organizations will be forced to reduce the number of people they provide cash transfers to or reduce the value of the money itself – and this at a time when the number of food insecure people is on the rise, said Saraf. “When we should be expanding our coverage, we will actually be reducing it [it].”
Slap in the face
African leaders attending Putin’s summit next week will remain silent on such issues, predicted Christopher Fomunyoh, Africa regional director at the US National Democratic Institute of International Affairs and one of Ukraine’s grain ambassadors appointed by Kiev.
But they don’t have to come back empty-handed again, he said. Russia’s disruption of the wheat deal after South Africa’s guided visit to St. Petersburg is a « slap in the face, » Fomunyoh told POLITICO. “Now their own credibility is at stake. And my hope is that they have to speak up so as not to further lose credibility with their own populations”.
In 2022, the Russia narrative was dominant in Africa, but that has slowly changed over the course of this year, he explained, adding that Africans were starting to see through Moscow’s propaganda.
« There’s always a delay, » Fomunyoh said. “But my feeling is that in the days and weeks ahead, people are going to see very clearly [that] the destruction of infrastructure in Odessa, the destruction of stocks, grain and grain in Chornomorsk are contributing to shortages and price inflation”.
This story has been updated.