The six countries that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin chose to provide with free grain reflect Russia’s foreign policy priorities in Africa, despite Mr. Putin’s claim to be sending food for purely charitable motives.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin announced at a meeting with African leaders that, over the next few months, Russia would deliver 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grain each to Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe.
Five of those countries voted against Russia at the United Nations in February in supporting a resolution that called for an end to the war in Ukraine.
Two of them, Mali and the Central African Republic, have relied on Russia’s Wagner mercenaries to prop up their authoritarian governments and are now being rewarded for their loyalty to Moscow. In a third, Burkina Faso, Russia and the Wagner mercenaries are trying to expand their foothold.
Two others, Eritrea and Zimbabwe, are already pariahs in the West, and the promise of grain only brings them closer to Moscow.
Somalia is the only country among the six that did not stand with Russia at the United Nations in February, but recently its leaders have also shown signs of drawing closer to Moscow. The Somali foreign minister visited Moscow in May, and the Kremlin promised to support Somalia’s calls to lift international sanctions, including an arms embargo, Russia’s Tass state news agency reported.
And while sending grain to Mogadishu may seem to be a humanitarian action from the Kremlin, it is also likely meant to counter the millions of dollars the United States has pledged to help end the famine in the Horn of Africa earlier this year.
Other African leaders, however, may be left disappointed if the grain shipments are all Russia has to offer the continent. At the last summit in Sochi in 2019, the Kremlin promised to double its trade with Africa and to broaden economic ties beyond its four main trading partners — Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and South Africa.
Russia’s wartime economy, though, may struggle to make good on these promises, said Mvemba Dizolele, who heads the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Africa has a trust deficit with the West,” he said. “That does not mean they have a trust surplus with Russia.”
Wandile Sihlobo, an agricultural economist in South Africa, said that Mr. Putin’s promise of grain did not negate the need to restart the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a U.N.-brokered deal that for a year let Ukraine export grain through a Russian blockade. Many African nations benefited from the deal in the decline of grain prices, he said, which “eased food security concerns for households.”
“The grain deal must be re-established,” he said. “African leaders should emphasize this issue and not be lured by the Kremlin through free grain supplies.”
Russia also offered a spiritual allegiance to African leaders, as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, railed against Western “anti-values” such as gay rights. This messaging may have appealed to conservative leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has faced international criticism for passing a harsh anti-gay law. Mr. Museveni posted online an image of a grinning handshake with Mr. Putin.
“It’s one way of saying, we’re on the same wavelength as you,” Mr. Dizolele said.