African leaders tell Vladimir Putin: 'We have a right to call for peace'

Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi, left, is greeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the official welcome ceremony for heads of delegations of countries taking part in the Russia Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 27, 2023. [Via VOA]

African leaders pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday to move ahead with their plan to end the Ukraine conflict and to renew a deal crucial to Africa on the safe wartime export of Ukrainian grain, which Moscow tore up last week.

While not directly critical of Russia, their interventions on the second day of a summit were more concerted and forceful than those that African countries have voiced previously.

They served as reminders of the depth of African concern at the consequences of the war, especially rising food prices.

"This war must end. And it can only end on the basis of justice and reason," African Union (AU) Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told Putin and African leaders in St. Petersburg.

"The disruptions of energy and grain supplies must end immediately. The grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular."

Reuters reported in June that the African plan floats a series of possible steps to defuse the conflict, including a Russian troop pullback, removal of Russian tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus, suspension of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against Putin, and sanctions relief.

Putin gave it a cool reception when African leaders presented it to him last month. In public remarks on Friday, he restated in similar terms his argument that Ukraine and the West, not Russia, were responsible for the conflict.

Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso said the initiative "deserves the closest attention," calling "urgently" for peace.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told Putin: "We feel that we have a right to call for peace - the ongoing conflict also negatively affects us."

The stream of calls prompted Putin repeatedly to defend Russia's position and finally to make an eight-minute statement, later issued by the Kremlin in a video, at the start of evening talks with the African leaders behind the peace plan.

He again accused the West of backing a "coup" in Kyiv in 2014 - when a wave of street protests forced Ukraine's pro-Russian president to flee - and of trying to draw Ukraine into the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and undermine Russian statehood.

He said it was Kyiv that was refusing to negotiate under a decree passed shortly after he claimed last September to have annexed four Ukrainian regions that Russia partly controls, adding: "The ball is entirely in their court."

'New realities'

Russia has long said it is open to talks but that these must take account of the "new realities" on the ground.

AU chair Azali Assoumani said Putin had shown his readiness to talk, and "now we have to convince the other side."

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rejected the idea of a ceasefire now that would leave Russia in control of nearly a fifth of his country and give its forces time to regroup after 17 grinding months of war.

At the summit, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi urged Russia to revive the Black Sea grain deal which, until Moscow refused to renew it last week, had granted Ukraine a "safe corridor" to export grain from its seaports despite the conflict.

Egypt is a big buyer of grain via the Black Sea route, and Sissi told the summit it was "essential to reach agreement" on reviving the deal.

Putin responded by arguing, as he has in the past, that rising world food prices were a consequence of Western policy mistakes long predating the Ukraine war.

He has repeatedly said Russia quit the agreement because the deal was not getting grain to the poorest countries and the West was not keeping its side of the bargain.

Russia's withdrawal and its bombardment of Ukrainian ports and grain depots have prompted accusations from Ukraine and the West that Russia is using food as a weapon of war and driving the global wheat price up by some 9%.

On Thursday, Putin promised to deliver up to 300,000 tons of free Russian grain - which U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called a "handful of donations" - among six of the countries attending the summit.

Assoumani said this might not be enough, and what was needed was a cease-fire.

Putin wanted the summit to energize Russia's ties with Africa and enlist its support in countering what he describes as U.S. hegemony and Western neo-colonialism.

Many of the leaders praised Moscow's support for their countries in their 20th-century liberation struggles, and the final declaration promised Russia would help them seek compensation for the damage done by colonial rule.

The leaders of Mali and Central African Republic, whose governments have relied heavily on the services of Russia's Wagner mercenary group, both expressed gratitude to Putin.