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Why African Leaders Are Staying Away From Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit

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Vladimir Putin is hosting the second-ever Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg from July 27 to 28 at an awkward time for the leader, who is seeking allies as Moscow finds itself ever more isolated on the global stage.

The recent fall-through of a deal, which allowed Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea and provided relief to many African countries struggling with food shortages, is expected to be a major point of discussion, alongside security matters for various African governments that rely on Russian military support.

“For Russia to be the host of a summit that generates strong showing of African leaders, would be a diplomatic coup,” says Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense. “It will be able to convey that it's business as usual. The recent insurrection with Wagner was just a bump in the road.”

Read More: Vladimir Putin Survived the Wagner Group Rebellion—for Now

Many African leaders have tried to strike a delicate balance during the Ukraine war so as not to jeopardize their relationships with either the West or Russia.

Yet only 16 African leaders are expected to attend the Russia-Africa summit, less than half the number who attended the prior one in 2019, despite the Kremlin making a recent diplomatic push in Africa.

“The St. Petersburg Economic Forum that took place last month did not have a lot of prominent officials even from the global south attend,” says Heather Ashby, senior program officer for the Center for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federal institute founded by Congress to promote peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

Tensions over grain

Ahead of the summit, the most pressing issue to many African governments will be the export of grain from Eastern Europe to African countries struggling with food insecurity and high prices. Many leaders are frustrated with Russia over the fallout of the grain deal that allowed for the passage of Ukrainian grains through the Black Sea, which Russia pulled out of last week.

Read More: Exclusive: Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Says ‘We Don’t Need Russia’ To Resume Grain Shipments

In a sign of that frustration, Korir Sing’Oei, a senior Kenyan foreign affairs official, tweeted last week that it was “a stab [in] the back at global food security prices and disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa.”

Experts tell TIME that Russia’s decision to suspend the grain deal was an effort to use the issue as leverage to regain access to SWIFT, the global banking system that powers most of the world’s international transactions. “I think what Russia was trying to do was to use the lapsing of the deal to try to negotiate getting more access to the SWIFT banking channels,” says Siegle. “It was falsely arguing that Russian grains, wheat, and fertilizer were under sanctions, which they aren't.”

That access has not come. To placate countries struggling with food shortages, Russia has been trying to offer African governments packages of free grains and fertilizers.

At the same time, Russia has continued to bomb grain storage facilities in Ukraine. Over 60,000 tons of grain were destroyed in the most recent Russian attack on Odessa last week. “It’s just highly ironic but highly symbolic that on the eve of this Africa-Russia summit that Russia is bombing this port that is going to cause further food shortages and food crises in these countries,” says Siegle.

Security and the Wagner uprising

One thing experts expect to see coming out of this summit is greater clarity on security partnerships between Russia and the representatives of African governments who attend. 

Russia’s Wagner Group has been heavily involved in several African countries—including the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali. Many autocratic governments used and continue to use Wagner forces to help maintain their own military power. 

“I think you're going to see greater involvement from [Russia’s] Ministry of Defense in terms of military advisors, military training, and various government forces, particularly in the Sahel region,” says Ashby. 

“In many countries, you had a parallel structure in which the Russian government provided security, advisory services, and assistance to states at the same time Wagner existed,” Ashby adds. 

While the Wagner mutiny might have temporarily raised concerns about the group's future, Ashby says that Putin will likely find a replacement for its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin soon, and that his forces will continue to remain loyal to the Kremlin.

Russian political meddling

Since the war began, Russia has also tried to use anti-colonial rhetoric to stir up tensions between the West and African countries. In Kenya, in the aftermath of large opposition-led anti-government protests against a new tax hike, in which at least two people were killed, the Russian government publicly condemned Western attempts to mediate between the government and the opposition.

The Russian ambassador to Kenya focused on an offer from 13 Western embassies in Nairobi to mediate between the opposition and the government. “If it is not interference in internal affairs, what is it?" tweeted Dmitri Maksimychev, Russia's ambassador to Kenya.

Fredrick Ajwang, a professor of political economy at King’s College in London, says that many Africans can at times welcome that rhetoric because they have come to see Western countries as “bullies.”

Western criticism of Africa, particularly when it comes to the Ukraine war, has irked some African leaders. During a trip to Cameroon last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he had “seen too much hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent.”

As the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor noted, while the majority of African states have abstained in most votes condemning Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, “Moscow has only had two African states actually vote with it—pariah states Eritrea and Mali.” Many African states have also voted with Ukraine and its allies, Taylor added.

Still, Russian rhetoric that criticizes the West will find a receptive audience among some African leaders, Ajwang adds. At today’s Russia-Africa summit, this narrative appears to be a major theme.

“We have always strictly adhered to the ‘African solutions to African problems’ principle, standing in solidarity with Africans in their struggle for self-determination, justice and their legitimate rights,” Putin wrote in a press release ahead of the summit.

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