Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has arrived in the Republic of Congo, the second stop on his Africa tour where he is aiming to seek support amid global anger over food shortages following Moscow’s blockade of vital Ukrainian ports.
After visiting Egypt over the weekend, Lavrov will meet Congolese leaders face-to-face on Monday before traveling on to Uganda and Ethiopia. All these countries rely heavily on wheat imports from both Russia and Ukraine.
Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, and it depends on Ukraine and Russia for a supply to feed a 100-million strong population.
Ukraine and Russia agreed a deal on Friday that would allow the resumption of grain exports from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, a major diplomatic breakthrough aimed at easing a worldwide food crisis sparked by the war.
However, Russia’s attack on a key Ukrainian port a day later has left the agreement hanging in balance.
On Sunday, Moscow’s top diplomat met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri. During that meeting, Lavrov blamed Ukraine for the stagnation in negotiations on the “wider range of issues.”
Global food prices have risen by 17% since January, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Lavrov said during the talks with his Egyptian counterpart that the deal to free up Ukraine’s ports will go ahead.
“It will be guaranteed that the Ukrainians will clear their territorial waters and allow ships to leave from there, and during their passage on the high seas, Russia and Turkey will ensure their safety with their military naval forces,” Lavrov said.
‘Arsenal of terror’
Russia has been accused of using food as a weapon of war and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said last week that food has become part of the Kremlin’s “arsenal of terror.”
“This is a cold, callous and calculated siege by Putin on some of the most vulnerable countries and people in the world … and we cannot tolerate it,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers.
Lavrov has, however, been keen to deflect responsibility for the shortages from Moscow, instead blaming the West in a letter written Friday for newspapers of the African countries and published by the Russian Foreign Ministry ahead of his departure.
“Western and Ukrainian propaganda that accuses Russia of allegedly ‘exporting hunger’ is completely groundless,” Lavrov wrote, calling them an attempt to shift responsibility.
Instead, he claimed the “collective West” has monopolized commodity and supply flows during the Covid-19 pandemic, worsening the situation for food imports in developing countries that has been further exacerbated by sanctions imposed against Russia.
But it is in Africa that the food shortages are biting. The United Nations has warned that up to 49 million people could be pushed into famine or famine-like conditions due to the Ukraine war’s devastating impact on global food supply and prices,
Eritrea sourced all its wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia in 2021, according to a June 2022 report by FAO. And Somalia, a country which is already suffering from extreme drought, has seen a surge in malnutrition cases and at least a doubling of wheat prices.
Most African countries have not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as they sought to maintain balance in their relationships with Moscow and Western countries.
It is a position Russia is keen to protect and Lavrov is using the trip to highlight Moscow’s “longstanding” relations with the African continent and also pointing out that Russia is not “stained by the bloody crimes of colonialism.”
In the letter, he commended the “balanced position” taken by African nations on what he called the “events in and around Ukraine,” praising its “friends” for not joining anti-Russian sanctions despite “external pressure on an unprecedented scale.”
“Russia will continue to fulfill in good faith its obligations according to international contracts in terms of exports of food, fertilizers, energy and other goods vital for Africa. Russia is taking all measures to achieve that,” he wrote in the piece titled “Russia and Africa: a partnership with a vision for the future.”
The letter was penned Friday for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the Congolese newspaper Les Dépêches de Brazzaville, the Ugandan newspaper New Vision and the Ethiopian newspaper Ethiopia Herald.
CNN’s Alex Stambaugh, Ivana Kottasova, Nadeen Ebrahim all contributed reporting.