JOHANNESBURG — African leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, are heading to St. Petersburg this week for the second Russia-Africa Summit, as an isolated Moscow looks to shore up its influence in a key region.
Analysts told VOA that high on the agenda will be President Vladimir Putin’s nixing of an arrangement that allowed Ukrainian grain to reach foreign markets.
Putin will be under pressure to reassure them after he terminated a deal allowing safe passage of Ukrainian grain exports earlier this month — a move criticized by the African Union Commission as something that could negatively affect food security, especially in Africa.
The move has riled African governments, with one senior Kenyan official saying the axing of the agreement is “a stab [in] the back.”
Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, said the decision not to renew the deal has already caused an increase in global food prices, which could hurt parts of Africa.
“Our very hope is that as the African leaders go to the Russia-Africa Summit, they can actually be able to have a much more sound conversation about the Black Sea grain deal — amongst other things that of course will be negotiated there — so that this can go back on the table and the exports can go,” Sihlobo said.
Earlier this week Putin himself sought to reassure African countries, relations with which have become increasingly important given Russia’s isolation by the West since its invasion of Ukraine last year. Many African countries have been hesitant to take sides in the conflict.
Cameron Hudson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Putin is likely to use the St. Petersburg meeting, which starts Thursday, to appeal to African leaders’ direct needs.
“Obviously he’s trying to win back some friends from his exit from the grain deal,” Hudson said, “and also show that he has the power to kind of cut bilateral deals with African countries that put them frankly more in his need, which is exactly the position that he wants to be in.”
Analysts have noted that Russia has an outsized influence in Africa comparative to its trade and investment clout. This is sometimes because of the former Soviet Union’s support for the region’s 20th century liberation movements, and because of shared anti-Western sentiment.
At the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, Putin vowed to double trade with Africa to $40 billion over five years. Instead, it has been sitting at about $18 billion a year, compared with China’s record $282 billion worth of trade with Africa.
Despite its relatively minor economic clout, Moscow is keen to use the summit to project political heft, said Denys Reva, a researcher for the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa.
“Despite the fact that the level of investment has been low, the level of trade has been low, Russia has very cleverly learned, or realized, some of the problems that exist between Western states, the European Union and the U.S., and Africa, and has positioned itself, in a way, to separate itself from these traditional partners,” Reva said.
While the summit aims to position Russia as a global player, Russian media reported that fewer than half of the African countries attending are sending their heads of state.
Analysts also said the issue of the Wagner Group — the mercenary group that recently attempted a mutiny in Russia and which has operations in several African nations — will likely be raised on the summit’s sidelines.