Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered free grain to six African countries, telling African leaders at a conference in St Petersburg that Moscow is making efforts to avert a global food crisis days after withdrawing from the Ukraine grain export deal.
“Our country will continue supporting needy states and regions, in particular with its humanitarian deliveries. We seek to actively participate in building a fairer system of distribution of resources. We are taking maximum efforts to avert a global food crisis,” Putin said addressing the conference attended by nearly 50 African leaders and officials.
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“I have already said that our country can replace Ukrainian grain, both on a commercial basis and as grant aid to the neediest African countries, more so since we expect another record harvest this year,” he said.
Russia last week refused to extend the United Nations- and Turkey-brokered deal under which Ukrainian grain exports were shipped across the Black Sea to global markets, including Africa, easing pressure on food prices.
The two-day summit is being scrutinised as a test of his support in Africa, where Putin retains backing despite international isolation sparked by his invasion of Ukraine last year. The Kremlin has accused Western countries of trying to prevent African states from participating in the summit, the second of its kind.
Putin said Russia intends to ship up to 50,000 tonnes of grain aid to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and the Central African Republic in the next three to four months.
Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow at the Centre for Global Development, told Al Jazeera that the grain donation is “too small in terms of the need” to secure food supplies.
“With India now banning the export of rice, and Russia enforcing this blockade, it creates a very difficult situation for African governments because the continent has been disproportionately affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Moore said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that taking millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain out of the global market will lead to higher prices, and these increased prices “will be paid by everybody, everywhere and namely by developing countries and by the vulnerable people in middle-income and even developed countries.”
Guterres said the UN is in contact with Turkey, Ukraine, Russia and other countries to try to re-establish the deal, which saw Ukraine export more than 32,000 tonnes of grain, allowing global food prices to drop significantly.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that Russia’s promise to donate grain to African nations did not compensate for pulling out of the deal.
“A handful of donations to some countries cannot replace the millions and millions of tonnes of grain exports that help stabilize food prices around the world,” Jean-Pierre said.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major grain suppliers. They agreed a year ago on the deal that reopened three Ukrainian Black Sea ports for food exports. Russia declined to renew the agreement last week, complaining that its own exports were being held up.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed African leaders attending the summit to demand answers about the grain disruptions that have propelled poorer nations towards crisis.
“They know exactly who’s to blame for this current situation,” Blinken said of the leaders.
“My expectation would be that Russia will hear this clearly from our African partners,” he said during a visit to New Zealand.
Seventeen African leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, were expected at the Russia-Africa summit taking place until Friday.
Africa’s 54 nations make up the largest voting bloc at the UN and have been more divided than any other region on General Assembly resolutions criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
On Friday, Putin is set to discuss Ukraine during a working lunch with a group of African heads of state, according to the Kremlin.
Putin held talks on Wednesday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and praised their joint energy projects.
Putin also chaired a working breakfast with heads of African regional organisations and bilateral talks including with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Putin gave Mnangagwa a helicopter and wished him success in upcoming elections, which analysts expect to be tense.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has been a major player in the security sphere in Africa, but its failed mutiny against Russia’s military leadership last month has cast doubt on the future of the group’s operations on the continent.
The summit in St Petersburg comes a month ahead of a summit of leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) due to take place in Johannesburg.
South Africa has said that Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant for his actions in Ukraine, will not be attending in person.
‘Ukraine captures village’
Meanwhile on Thursday, Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said the Ukrainian army recaptured the village of Staromaiorske from Russian forces on the southern front.
“Staromaiorske in the Donetsk region has been liberated. Our defenders are currently carrying out clearing operations” of Russian troops, she said on Telegram.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted a video on Telegram showing a group of soldiers with a Ukrainian flag, saying they had “liberated the village of Staromaoirske”.
“Our south. Our guys. Glory to Ukraine,” Zelenskyy wrote.
The expulsion of Russian forces from the village would mark one of the first such victories on the southern front since Ukraine started its counteroffensive in June, aiming to push out Russian troops from Ukrainian territory they have occupied.