Putin tightens grip on Africa after killing Black Sea grain deal – POLITICO

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African leaders have long been reluctant to criticize Russia and now that President Vladimir Putin has killed off a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain, they know they are more dependent than ever on Moscow’s largesse to feed millions of people at risk of going hungry.

Having canceled the pact on Monday, Moscow unleashed four nights of attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Chornomorsk — two vital export facilities — destroying the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain. In the latest assault, on Thursday night, a barrage of Kalibr missiles hit the granaries of an agricultural enterprise in Odessa.

The decision by Russia to exit the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a stab [in] back,” tweeted Abraham Korir Sing’Oei, a senior foreign ministry official from Kenya, is one of the African countries that has received donations of Russian fertilizer in recent months.

The resulting rise in global food prices “disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa already impacted by drought,” he added.

Sing’Oei’s was a solitary voice, however. Rather than reproaching Moscow, African leaders have remained largely silent as they prepare to attend a summit hosted by Putin in St Petersburg next week. This follows an African mission led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month to Kyiv and St Petersburg in a bid to broker peace.

The diplomatic stakes could hardly be higher.

Putin had been due to make a return visit to Africa next month to attend a summit of the BRICS emerging economies in Johannesburg. That trip has been called off, however, “by mutual agreement” to avoid exposing the Kremlin chief to the risk of arrest under 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 enabled Ukraine to export 33 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds, many African governments now have nowhere else to turn to but Russia.

“It’s going to be based on political alignments,” said Samuel Ramani, an Oxford-based academic and author of a book on Russia’s resurgent influence in Africa.

Comparing Russia’s tactics to blackmail, Ramani added: “They’re going to be offering free grain to some, they’re going to be selling to others. It’s full-fledged grain diplomacy.”

No deal

Russia said on Monday it would no longer guarantee the safety of ships passing through a transit corridor as it announced its official withdrawal from the deal, declaring the northwestern Black Sea to be once again “temporarily dangerous.” It followed up by threatening to fire on all ships going across the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports, sparking a tit-for-tat warning from Kyiv that it would do the same to all vessels sailing to Russian-controlled Black Sea ports.

Over the 12 months it functioned, the grain deal helped bring down global food prices by as much as 20 percent from the peak set in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It also provided aid agencies with vital supplies.

Russia repeatedly claimed it has not seen the benefits of the three-times extended agreement, however.

Although Western sanctions carve out exemptions for food and fertilizer the Kremlin argues that sanctions targeting Russian individuals and its state agriculture bank are hindering its own exports, thus contravening a second deal agreed last July under which the UN committed to facilitating these exports for a three-year period.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that it would resume talks on the Black Sea grain deal only if the UN implements this part of the deal within the next three months.

Propaganda war

Another of Moscow’s criticisms is that cargoes of Ukrainian grain have headed mostly to rich countries; Not to those in Africa and Asia bearing the brunt of the global food crisis.

Over the last year, a quarter of all the grain and oilseeds shipped under the initiative have headed to China, the largest recipient, while some 18 percent went to Spain and 10 percent to Turkey, according to UN data.

This is not the whole story, however. Trade data from the World Bank shows that much of the wheat exported to Turkey is processed and re-exported, as flour, pasta and other products, to Africa and the Middle East.

Most importantly, all grain that flows onto global markets reduces prices, wherever it ends up, countering the UN and others.

Russia has canceled the Black Sea deal and unleashed attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Chornomorsk | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It is not a question of where the Black Sea food actually goes; it is a question of it [bringing] international prices down, so whether you are a rich country or a poor country, you can benefit,” said Arif Husain, the UN World Food Program’s chief economist, speaking at an event on the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Rome recently.

These arguments have been at the center of a months-long propaganda battle between Moscow and Kyiv over who can rightly claim to be feeding 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 — was quick to take hold in many parts of Africa.

Ukraine sought to counter this with a humanitarian food program, Grain from Ukraine, launched in November 2022, but shipments of fertilizer donated to countries, including Malawi and Kenya, served to sweeten the Kremlin’s message.

A true friend knows no weather. A true friend comes to the rescue when you need them the most. And you just demonstrated that to us,” Malawi’s Agriculture Minister Sam Dalitso Kawale said upon receiving a fertilizer gift from Russian firm Uralchem ​​in March.

Feeling the pinch

Now, countries like Malawi need friends in Moscow more than ever. Not only does the end of the grain deal cut them off from flows of Ukrainian grain, leaving them dependent on Russian supplies, but it also pushes up prices.

Moscow’s withdrawal from the agreement is unlikely to have the same impact on prices as its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Over the last year, Ukraine has opened up alternative export routes and a slowdown in shipments moving under the initiative also meant commodity markets had been expecting Moscow to quit the deal.

While Ukraine can continue to export grain through alternative routes, these come with extra logistical and transport costs, squeezing prices for Ukrainian farmers, at one end, and pushing up costs for buyers, at the other.

For food-insecure countries in the Horn of Africa even a small increase in prices could spell disaster, said Shashwat Saraf, emergency director in East Africa for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Domestic production has dropped amid conflict and severe drought, leaving the region increasingly reliant on food imports and food aid. As such, higher food prices will hit hard, he said, adding that traders already report “feeling the pinch.”

With the cost of food rising, the IRC and other humanitarian organizations will be forced to either reduce the number of people they provide cash transfers or reduce the value of these themselves — and this at a time when the number of food insecure people is rising, said Saraf. “When we should be expanding our coverage, we will be actually reducing [it].”

Slap in the face

African leaders attending Putin’s summit next week will be silent on such issues, predicted Christopher Fomunyoh, African regional director at the US National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and one of the Grain from Ukraine ambassadors appointed by Kyiv.

But they must not return empty-handed again, he said. Russia’s discontinuation of the grain deal, following the South African-led visit to St Petersburg, is a “slap in the face,” Fomunyoh told POLITICO. “Their own credibility is now at stake. And my hope is that they will have to speak out in order to not further lose credibility with their own population.”

In 2022, Russia’s narrative was dominant in Africa, but that has slowly changed through the course of this year, he explained, adding that Africans were starting to see through Moscow’s propaganda.

“There is always a time delay,” said Fomunyoh. But my sense is that in the days and weeks to come, people are going to see very clearly [that] The destruction of infrastructure in Odessa, the destruction of stock, wheat, and grain in Chornomorsk contributes to scarcity and inflation in prices.”

This story has been updated.

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