The Biden administration is dismissing Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to supply free grain to several African nations whose leaders are attending a summit in St. Petersburg, and calling instead for a full Russian return to the agreement that allowed Ukraine to send products from their Black Sea ports.
John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, also told VOA on Thursday that the White House is closely watching a coup in Niger, a West African nation seen as a close U.S. partner in the struggle against Islamic extremism and instability caused by violent Russian mercenaries on the continent.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: John, thank you very much for your time. With Russia nixing the grain deal (to allow shipments out of Ukrainian ports), which is vital for the Global South, it turns out that two-thirds of African leaders are not attending the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. Does this poor showing mean that Putin's food-weaponizing strategy, as you call it, is now playing against him?
John Kirby: I certainly can't speak for the African leaders who decided to go or not to go, or what motivated them. I think the whole world, including African nations, are seeing, quite plainly, the effect of Russia's decision to pull out of the grain deal, the effect that's going to have on their economies, on food scarcity across the continent. And I hope that for those leaders who did show up, I hope Mr. Putin is honest with you. I hope he tells them, 'I'm the reason why food prices are volatile. I'm the reason why you're going to have more problems with starvation, and with access to food and grain in your countries.' Because it is, there's only one party responsible for the volatility we're seeing, and for the fact that the grain is now going to be much harder to get out of Ukraine. And that's Russia, that's Mr. Putin.
VOA: Russia, at least publicly, is trying to downplay the impact of terminating the grain deal. And now Putin is offering, to at least six African countries, free grain and is trying to sort of replace Ukraine as a major food supplier to African nations. First of all, is it possible and how dangerous are those statements from Putin?
Kirby: On the face of it, it looks like a desperate attempt by Mr. Putin to try to paper over the impact that his decision to not extend the deal is going to have on African nations. Obviously, each of these sovereign nations have got to decide for themselves whether this new offer by Mr. Putin is legitimate and whether they want to accept it. But it's increasingly clear that nations around the world and in the Global South are seeing this reckless, irresponsible decision by Putin for what it is.
VOA: As for alternative ways of executing the grain deal, besides ground transportation, are the U.S. and allies considering sending convoys to escort ships in the Black Sea?
Kirby: No, there's no active discussion now about inserting warships into the Black Sea. I think we all understand that that will only escalate the tensions and increase the odds of conflict between the West and Russia and that's not what we're looking for. What we're looking for is for the grain to get out. What we're looking for is for the deal to get extended. And short of that we're going to work with our allies and partners on other ground routes and maybe even river routes.
VOA: It seems like Bolivia is interested in obtaining (drone) technology from Iran to protect its borders, as they say. Do you find this concerning?
Kirby: We're concerned about any export of Iranian technology that can be destabilizing. We have leveled many sanctions on Iran, some of them tied directly to their support for Russia and their export of this drone technology to Moscow. We urge all nations, no matter where they are, to carefully consider before they enter into defense arrangements with a nation like Iran.
VOA: Can you elaborate on the coup in Niger? What's the administration's strategy and next move to try to get the country back on the path towards democratic governance?
Kirby: Well, we also obviously want to see the democratically elected government fully respected and free to govern as the people of Niger want them to govern. We're watching events there, very closely. … We continue to urge as we did yesterday, that President (Mohamed) Bazoum be released and be allowed to execute the office that he was voted into to represent the people of Niger. Our State Department colleagues are doing the best they can to keep people advised and aware of the situation on the ground. We advise Americans to be safe, safety first.
VOA: Some American media outlets reported that President Biden ordered the transfer of evidence to the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes. Can you elaborate on that?
Kirby: President Biden has been exceedingly clear that we want to make sure that Russia is properly held accountable for war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, that Russian forces and paramilitary forces and private contractors like the Wagner Group are clearly perpetrating on the people of Ukraine. And we've been clear from the very beginning that we're going to help Ukraine. They have a special counsel who's gathering evidence. We're going to do what we can to help them collect that evidence, analyze that evidence and have it available for the appropriate international accountability mechanisms that might occur when the war is over. And that will include some coordination, some support of the work that the International Criminal Court is doing.
VOA: Thank you very much.
Kirby: Thank you.