NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — As Russia seeks more allies during its invasion of Ukraine, longtime U.S. security partner Kenya might not be an obvious choice. But hours after Russia terminated a deal to keep grain flowing from Ukraine, Moscow’s ambassador saw an opening to appeal to one of the African countries that would feel the effects the most.
In an opinion piece for two of Kenya's largest newspapers, Ambassador Dmitry Maksimychev blamed the United States and European Union for the deal's collapse, asserting they had “used every trick” to keep Russian grain and fertilizer from the global markets.
“Now, my dear Kenyan friends, you know the whole truth about who is weaponizing food,” he wrote.
It's the kind of brash outreach expected this week at the second Russia-Africa Summit. Grain supplies are in question. The future of the Wagner military group is, too. It’s a notable time for Russia to host nearly 50 African countries that rely heavily on Moscow for agricultural products and security. It’s not clear how many heads of state will attend.
President Vladimir Putin's government is under new pressure to show its commitment to a continent of 1.3 billion people that is increasingly assertive on the global stage.
Africa's 54 nations make up the largest voting bloc at the United Nations and have been more divided than any other region on General Assembly resolutions criticizing Russia's invasion. If they leave the two-day summit on Friday feeling unheeded, they might distance themselves from Russia, said analyst Cameron Hudson with the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think you could see Africans beginning to vote with their feet,” he said. “This is a decisive moment for both Africa and Putin in their relationship.”
Putin has repeatedly said that Russia would offer free grain to low-income African countries now that the grain deal has been terminated. "The countries in need will definitely receive the necessary assurances regarding their need for agricultural products” during the summit, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said last week.
The Russian military company Wagner, after its brief rebellion against Moscow, will be an urgent issue for countries like Sudan, Mali and others who contract with the mercenary group in exchange for natural resources like gold. Russia’s foreign minister has said Wagner’s work in Africa will continue.
As for a peace proposal for Ukraine that African leaders have tried to pursue, that “could be discussed” at the summit, Russian ambassador-at-large Oleg Ozerov told the Kommersant newspaper.
Putin himself is a question. He has visited sub-Saharan Africa only once in more than two decades in power. Last week, after considerable diplomatic pressure, South Africa announced that Putin had agreed not to attend an economic summit there in August because of an arrest warrant for him by the International Criminal Court over Ukraine.
South Africa’s debate over whether to arrest him was another sign of the ambivalence toward Moscow by a once-steady U.S. ally. But President Cyril Ramaphosa's office on Friday made clear that African leaders are working “for an end to the destabilizing Ukraine-Russia war,” saying it would be in the continent's economic interests.
The U.S.-backed Africa Center for Strategic Studies has predicted that Russia will try to pull other influential countries including Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria and Senegal into its orbit. Africa is “the most welcoming region for Russia of any other region in the world," the center's Joseph Siegle said.
Like China, Russia tries to appeal to African nations’ distaste at feeling dictated to by global powers.
A busy tweeter, Russia's ambassador to Kenya drew the praise of that country's foreign minister last week when he objected to a statement by the U.S. and allies expressing concern about live bullets used against Kenyan protests over the rising cost of living. “If it is not interference in internal affairs, what is it?” Maksimychev asked.
“Thank you @russembkenya for this principled position,” Kenya’s foreign minister, Korir Sing’Oei, replied — just a day after he called Russia’s decision to end the grain deal a “stab on the back."
Despite its high profile in Africa, Russia invests relatively little in it. At the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, Putin vowed to double Russia’s trade with the continent within five years. Instead, it has stalled at around $18 billion a year. Moscow offers less than 1% of what goes to Africa in foreign direct investment, with almost no humanitarian aid.
But Russia can connect with African nations in ways that the West cannot, said Tim Kalyegira, a Ugandan analyst and writer. “Russia is one of the few European countries allied with Africa in views about homosexual relations: ‘We are a traditional Christian country. Every time you have an anti-gay bill, we’re with you,’” he said.
That could play to U.S. allies like Nigeria and Ghana as well, Kalyegira said.
Uganda faced Washington’s criticism this year for a new law that prescribed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” President Joe Biden threatened sanctions amid “democratic backsliding” by a longtime partner.
Now Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is listed as a panelist at the Russia-Africa Summit for a discussion on “What forms of new colonialism are being imposed on the global majority by the West today?”
Uganda also has been one of the largest buyers of weapons from Russia, Africa’s top arms supplier, along with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Angola and Burkina Faso.
Kalyegira said Russia now could broker grain supply deals with individual African nations, weakening any continental stance on the war.
The U.S. hosted its own Africa summit last year as part of a growing number of such Africa gatherings by powers including China, France, Turkey, Japan and the U.K.
“It’s worth asking why Americans should care about competing in Africa or investing in its stability. The answer is clear: Africa is poised to shape the 21st century as the world’s fastest-growing demographic and economic power,” Joseph Sany with the U.S. Institute of Peace told a U.S. House subcommittee this month.
“By 2050, Africans will make up a quarter of the global population," he said.
The delegations heading to Russia are being urged to use that to their advantage.
“African states would no doubt rather be kingmakers than be caught in another proxy war,” a consultant with the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, Ronak Gopaldas, wrote earlier this year. “A smart approach is to straddle these powers for maximum benefit.”
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Tallinn, Estonia, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.