Russia tells famine-fearing Africa it’s not to blame for food shortage
By Vivian Yee, Anton Troianovski and Abdi Latif Dahir
President Vladimir Putin of Russia likes to cast himself as the leader of a global movement rising up against domination by the United States and its allies. On Sunday, his top diplomat brought that message directly to Africa, hoping to turn the hunger and social strife across the continent to Russia’s advantage.
He is likely to find a receptive audience.
Even before setting out on his four-country tour, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov made clear he would use the trip to blame the West for the grain shortages tied to the war in Ukraine that are raising fears of famine in African countries and to paint Russia as the continent’s faithful ally.
Ahead of the trip, Russia acquiesced to an agreement that allows Ukraine to resume exporting critically needed grain that has been blocked in Black Sea ports by the fighting, a sign of Putin’s apparent concern for public opinion across the developing world.
The global food crisis is expected to figure prominently in Lavrov’s trip to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. But while the grain shortages were set off by the Russian invasion, the foreign minister suggested that Moscow was not the problem.
“We know that the African colleagues do not approve of the undisguised attempts of the U.S. and their European satellites to gain the upper hand, and to impose a unipolar world order to the international community,” he wrote in an article published in newspapers in the four countries he was to visit.
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, governments in Africa and in the Middle East have found themselves caught in the middle.
Pressed by the West to condemn the invasion, these governments also seek to maintain access to Russian grain and other exports and to preserve friendly ties with Russia that in some cases date back to the Soviet era. Seeing no gain in alienating either side, some have tried to simply not take sides in the conflict.
For his part, Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has refused to condemn Moscow as strongly as the U.S. wanted. And Sunday, after meeting with Lavrov, the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, had warm words for his counterpart.
Egyptian-Russian relations “are historical, characterized by friendship and branched out into many fields politically, economically and culturally,” Shoukry declared at a news conference.
“We look forward to further close cooperation based on mutual respect and shared interest,” he said.
Lavrov said Russian agricultural exporters were committed to meeting their obligations and that Russian and Egyptian ministries had agreed to continue cooperating on the issue, according to Russian and Egyptian media reports.
“We have reiterated the Russian grain exporters’ adherence to their commitments,” he said at a joint news conference with Shoukry, adding that Russia and Egypt had a “common understanding concerning the causes of the grain crisis.”
Western nations, too, have waged a concerted campaign in the region, trying to keep countries from getting too close to Russia. Ahead of Lavrov’s visit Sunday, Western diplomats in Cairo lobbied Egypt behind the scenes not to give the Russian minister too warm a reception.
The American special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, was also set to visit the region starting Sunday, with plans to travel to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia for talks. The same day, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo reminded reporters in a news release that President Joe Biden had pledged $50 million for Egypt to help offset the rapid rise in prices of wheat and other staple foods set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Western attempts at counterprogramming, including editorials and social media posts, have done little to attract more public support in the Middle East. Russian disinformation and propaganda have found fertile ground in a region where many Arabs have long harbored anti-American and anti-Western sentiment stemming from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel.
For months, the United States, Britain and the European Union have tried to turn the argument in their favor by laying the responsibility for the soaring price of bread and other basic foods squarely at Putin’s feet, roundly condemning Russia for shutting down the flow of Ukrainian grain to the world through the Black Sea.
On Friday, Russia agreed to a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that would allow Ukraine to export its grain. The next morning, however, Russian missiles hit the port of Odesa, raising questions about whether the deal might collapse.
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in a video posted Saturday from Kenya, where she was traveling, that the Odesa attack was “just the latest indication of the cold indifference Vladimir Putin has for the cost of the war in Ukraine, a man-made war that he created for no reason.”
Ukraine, for its part, said the arrangement was still on. Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Ukraine would do everything possible “to feed the world.” The strikes on Odesa, Markarova said, demonstrated that Russia was not operating in good faith. “Our farmers are even planting and harvesting under the fire,” she said.
Wheat is a major reason Egypt can ill afford to alienate either side; in the past, about 80% of its supply came from Ukraine and Russia. Since the war began, its economy has buckled under the stress of runaway inflation, evaporating foreign investment and shrinking grain supplies.
Nearly 30% of Egypt’s tourists came from Russia before the war, and Russia is building a $26 billion nuclear power plant in Egypt. Yet Egypt is also one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid.
So el-Sissi has tried to balance relationships with Russia and the West.
In March, el-Sissi called Putin to reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to cooperation after it voted in favor of a United Nations resolution to condemn the invasion. And last month, he gave a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia.
Elsewhere on the African continent, public opinion has appeared to waver between support for Ukraine and sympathy with Russia’s justification of its invasion.
While few African leaders have publicly supported Russia, no African countries have joined the American and European sanctions against Moscow. That balancing act was apparent last month when the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, met with Putin.
Sall implored Putin to free up the trapped Ukrainian grain — but he also echoed Moscow’s argument that Western sanctions had worsened the food crisis, explicitly calling for lifting restrictions on exports of Russian wheat and fertilizer.
Though the sanctions do not cover those commodities, shipping companies, insurers, banks and other businesses have been reluctant to do business with Russia for fear of breaking the rules or harming their reputations.
In his article ahead of the trip to Africa, Lavrov praised African leaders for resisting Western pressure to join the sanctions against Russia. “Such an independent path deserves deep respect,” he wrote.
Putin has traded heavily on his theme of Russia as leading a worldwide uprising against Western hegemony. Again and again, he has repeatedly described the Americans and their European allies as a “golden billion.” They live well, he says, at the expense of the rest of the world.
That argument is likely to resonate with many Arabs and Africans who resent the West’s long history of meddling in their affairs and extracting their resources.
“Why should this golden billion, which is only part of the global population, dominate everyone else and enforce its rules of conduct that are based on the illusion of exceptionalism?” Putin said Wednesday at a forum in Moscow. “It mainly got to where it is by robbing other peoples in Asia and Africa.”
But Putin’s message has been undercut by Ukraine’s inability to export its grain by sea since the war started. And Russian officials have not shied away from using the threat of starvation in developing countries as a bargaining chip.
“I have heard it several times from different people: ‘Hunger is our last hope,’” the editor of Russia’s state-run RT television network, Margarita Simonyan, told Putin at a conference in St. Petersburg last month. “This means that once hunger sets in, this will bring them to their senses. This is when they will lift sanctions and will be friends with us, because they will understand that there is no way around it.”
Murithi Mutiga, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, said Russia had several advantages as it sought to win hearts and minds on the African continent: a network of elites who studied in the Soviet Union, the “lingering loyalty” of groups it supported in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the fact that it supplies arms to numerous African governments.
“Moscow will, however, be disappointed if it expects more African governments to offer it full backing,” Mutiga said. “The overwhelming instinct among authorities on the continent is to remain nonaligned and to stay out of the confrontation between Russia and the West.”