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African leaders press to resume grain shipments

Putin unswayed, but says revenue could be shared


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Alexei Danichev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

NAIROBI, Kenya — African leaders have left two days of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin with little to show for their requests to resume a deal that kept grain flowing from Ukraine and to find a path to end the war there.

Putin in a news conference late Saturday following the Russia-Africa summit said Russia’s termination of the grain deal earlier this month caused a rise in grain prices that benefits Russian companies. He added that Moscow would share some of that revenue with the “poorest nations.” That commitment, with no details, follows Putin’s promise to start shipping 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain for free to each of six African nations in the next three to four months — an amount dwarfed by the 725,000 tons shipped by the U.N. World Food Program to several hungry countries, African and otherwise, under the grain deal. Russia plans to send the free grain to Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Fewer than 20 of Africa’s 54 heads of state or government attended the Russia summit, while 43 attended the previous gathering in 2019, reflecting concerns over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine even as Moscow seeks more allies on the African continent of 1.3 billion people. Putin praised Africa as a rising center of power in the world, while the Kremlin blamed “outrageous” Western pressure for discouraging some African countries from showing up.

The presidents of Egypt and South Africa were among the most outspoken on the need to resume the grain deal.

“We would like the Black Sea initiative to be implemented and that the Black Sea should be open,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said. “We are not here to plead for donations for the African continent.” African leaders also called clearly for peace.

“This war must end and it can only end on the basis of justice and reason,” said the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. “The disturbances that it causes in the supply of energy and grain must cease immediately” for the benefit of all, especially Africans. Putin said Russia would analyze African leaders’ peace proposal for Ukraine, whose details have not been publicly shared. But the Russian leader asked: “Why do you ask us to pause fire? We can’t pause fire while we’re being attacked.” The next significant step in peace efforts instead appears to be a Ukrainian-organized peace summit hosted by Saudi Arabia in August. Russia is not invited.

Africa’s 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 actions in Ukraine. Delegations at the summit in St. Petersburg roamed exhibits of weapons, a reminder of Russia’s role as the top arms supplier to the African continent.

But African nations need more concrete results from such meetings, the AU Commission head told the summit.

“The trade balance between Russia and Africa, very unbalanced in favor of the first party, must be improved,” Mahamat said. 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.

In addition, “the strengthening of cooperation on peace and security and the fight against terrorism calls for more deeds and fewer declarations of intent,” Mahamat said, while he and other African leaders were rushing to respond to a coup in Niger that could upend the regional response to a growing threat from Islamic extremist groups.

Putin in his remarks on Saturday also downplayed his absence from the BRICS economic summit in South Africa next month amid a controversy over an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court. His presence there, Putin said, is not “more important than my presence here, in Russia.”

DANUBE PORTS Danube River ports are now the only routes to ship grain, but have stirred divisions among nearby European countries and generated higher costs to be absorbed by Ukrainian farmers, said Joseph Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Russian missile strikes against the Danube port of Odesa earlier this month also raised questions about how much longer that route will remain viable.

That’s a disincentive to keep planting fields already threatened by missiles and strewn with explosive mines. Corn and wheat production in agriculture-dependent Ukraine is down nearly 40% this year from prewar levels, analysts say.

From the first of July last year until June 30 this year, Ukraine exported 68 million tons of grain, according to data from Mykola Horbachov, the president of the Ukrainian Grain Association. Ukrainian farmers shipped 11.2 million tons via railways, 5.5 million tons by road transport and around 18 million tons through Danube ports. Additionally, nearly half of the total exported grain, 33 million tons, was delivered through seaports under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Ihor Osmachko, the general director of Agroprosperis Group, was unsurprised by Russia’s withdrawal from the deal leading to its collapse. His company had never considered it a reliable or permanent solution during wartime.

He said Russians frequently stymied the deal, even while it was functioning, by delaying ship inspections until the cargoes were sent back, leading to $30 million in losses for his company alone. Now, they are once again forced to pay to reroute 100,000 tons of grain trapped in ports that are no longer safe, Osmachko said.

“We have been preparing for this whole time,” Osmachko said. “We haven’t stopped. We are moving forward.” Osmachko estimated around 80% to 90% of the approximately 3.2 million tons of grain Agroprosperis exported to China, Europe and African countries during the past year went through the grain corridor.

“The most signif icant problem today is the cost of logistics,” explained Mykola Horbachov, president of the Ukrainian Grain Association. Before the war, farmers paid approximately $20 to $25 per ton to transport grain to the Odesa ports. Now, logistics costs have tripled as they are forced to pay more than $100 to transport a single ton via alternative routes through the Danube port to Constanta, Romania.

“If we were to go on the Danube with the grain corridor closed, practically all our production would be unprofitable,” Osmachko said.

The Danube ports can’t handle the same volume as seaports. The most Agroprosperis has sent through this route is 75,000 tons per month, compared with a monthly average of 250,000 tons through Black Sea ports.

The Ukrainian harvest this year is the lowest in a decade, according to a July report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Horbachov said shipping costs to export around the world and uncertainty about the length of the war will last could quickly make new planting unprofitable for Ukrainian farmers.

Ukraine currently produces three times more grain than it consumes, while global prices will inevitably rise if the country’s exports decrease.

“I think you’re looking at a diminished Ukraine for at least the next couple of years and maybe longer,” said Glauber. “That’s something the rest of the world just needs to make up.” The war from all sides poses risks for Agroprosperis.

In the Sumy region on the Russian border, farmers harvest their crops wearing body armor. Sometimes they must stop their combines in the middle of the wheat fields to pick up shrapnel from Russian projectiles.

“It can get tough at times,” Osmachko acknowledged. “But there are responsibilities — some have duties on the front. Some must grow food and ensure the country’s and world’s security.”

Information for this article was contributed by Cara Anna, Hanna Arhirova, Volodymyr Yurchuk and Courtney Bonnell of The Associated Press.

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