The Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Thursday, at the opening of a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, to deliver grain free of charge to six African countries, amid prevailing fears after the expiration of the effects of an agreement that allowed the export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain.

Having become isolated on the international scene since launching his military attack on Ukraine in 2022, Putin can still count on the support or neutrality of many African countries.

Putin said in the opening speech of the summit that Moscow will be able to deliver 50,000 tons of grain free of charge to six countries, including Zimbabwe, Somalia and Eritrea, in addition to three countries that have approached Russia in recent years, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic.

Last week, Moscow abandoned an important agreement that allowed Ukraine since the summer of 2022 to export, including to Africa, its grain through the Black Sea, despite the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, which contributed to stabilizing food prices and eliminating the risks of scarcity.

In his speech Thursday, Putin justified the decision by asserting that Western countries had obstructed the delivery of Russian fertilizers and grain.

In St. Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian Empire, delegations from 49 African countries, including 17 heads of state, are attending the second Russian-African summit, after a first edition in 2019.

In recent days, Russia has tried to reassure its African partners, saying that it understands their concern on this issue, stressing its willingness to export grain for free to countries that need it most.

Vsevolod Sviridov, an expert at the Center for African Studies at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, told AFP that for Moscow and its partners, “it’s necessary to find common ground, to explain views, on current issues, such as the grain agreement, for example”.

In general, he added, “the framework in which Russia interacts with Africa has changed profoundly, in light of Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine… Therefore, it’s clear that a new definition of these relations must be established,” he added.

On Wednesday, Putin met Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, then Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, praising their joint energy projects.

On Thursday, Putin presented a helicopter to Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is participating in the summit.

“This bird will soon take to our skies,” said government spokesman Nick Mangwana.

In recent years, Russia has sought to strengthen its relations with Africa, especially through the presence of the armed Wagner group in several countries on the continent.

In reference to this interest, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made two tours to the continent since the beginning of the year, in an attempt to lure it into the Moscow camp, presenting it as a bulwark against Western “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism”.

However, Wagner’s mutiny in June casts doubt on the future of its operations on the continent.

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