War Brought Putin Closer to Africa. Now It’s Pushing Them Apart.

Shunned in the West, his authority tested by a failed mutiny at home, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia needs to project normalcy and shore up support from his allies. So on Thursday, he will host African leaders at a flashy summit in St. Petersburg, part of his continuing outreach to a continent that has become critical to Moscow’s foreign policy.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, some African countries have backed Mr. Putin at the United Nations, welcomed his envoys and his warships, and offered control of lucrative assets, like a gold mine in the Central African Republic that U.S. officials estimate contains $1 billion in reserves.

But if Mr. Putin sought to move closer to African leaders as he prosecuted his war, the 17-month-old conflict is now straining those ties. This summit is expected to draw only half the number of African heads of state or government as the last gathering in 2019, a situation that the Kremlin on Wednesday blamed on “brazen interference” from the United States and its allies.

The summit comes against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Black Sea over Mr. Putin’s recent decision to terminate a deal allowing Ukraine to ship grain to global markets. Russia’s withdrawal has caused food prices to spike, adding to the misery of the world’s poorest countries, including some of those attending the Russia-Africa summit.

As African leaders prepare to meet Mr. Putin, Russian warplanes have pulverized the Ukrainian port of Odesa that is a key distribution point for grain exports. And in recent days, American and British officials have warned about Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions in the Black Sea.

The outcry over the end of the grain deal — the Kenyan foreign ministry called Mr. Putin’s decision a “stab in the back” — has put the Russian leader on the defensive. In an article previewing the summit, he offered to make up for the shortfall to African countries by supplying them with Russian grain, even for free.

At the same time, Western nations have seized the opportunity to drive a wedge between Mr. Putin and his African guests.

“President Putin seems dead set on causing as much suffering around the world as he can,” Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, said on Tuesday. “Russia is driving Africa into poverty.”

While grain politics are likely to dominate the summit in public, in private, some African leaders are expected to press Mr. Putin on the fate of Wagner, the paramilitary group that mounted a failed uprising against his military leadership last month.

Wagner mercenaries guarding the president and other high-ranking attendees at a Labor Day event in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, in 2019.Credit…Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

While Wagner is best known for fighting in Ukraine, its forces are also deployed to African countries like the Central African Republic and Mali, where they exploit gold and diamonds in return for propping up fragile authoritarian regimes.

At the summit, Mr. Putin will want to personally assure nervous African partners that, whatever happens to Wagner, their partnership with Russia “is not going away anytime soon,” said Catrina Doxsee, an analyst with the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The summit comes as Mr. Putin seeks to demonstrate that Russia still has foreign policy firepower despite its wartime isolation. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has stepped up diplomatic efforts across developing countries, attempting to curry favor by casting the conflict in Ukraine as pushback against an imperialist and power-hungry West.

The gathering Thursday and Friday is the latest in a series of splashy events in world capitals, including Beijing, Brussels, Istanbul and Washington, hosted by governments seeking to strengthen ties with Africa. The continent’s population is projected to double in the next quarter-century, and it has large reserves of the minerals needed for industries of the future, like electric vehicles.

The Biden administration hosted its own summit in December, welcoming nearly 50 African leaders to Washington and announcing billions in aid and investment. A stream of senior American officials has traveled to Africa since then, including Vice President Kamala Harris. The administration says it has helped close 75 business deals worth $5.7 billion.

Washington’s efforts were partly seen as a response to Moscow’s intensifying diplomatic outreach to Africa; since February 2022, for instance, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, has visited a dozen African countries, including U.S. security allies such as Kenya.

In St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin will have his chance to dazzle his African guests with the stately beauty of his home city. The summit will take place at an exhibition center near two of Russia’s most extravagant imperial palaces.

Retired African soccer stars are being flown in for a gala match involving elite former Russian players. The Russian state defense export company, Rosoboronexport, will operate a showcase booth at the summit.

Flags promoting the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit are pictured outside St Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.Credit…Olga Maltseva/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, a good number of top African leaders have chosen to stay away. Forty-five African heads of state or government attended the last Russia-Africa summit, at the Russian coastal resort of Sochi, in 2019. This time, 21 have confirmed their attendance, the Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Tuesday, with other countries represented by ministers or senior officials.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, on Wednesday blamed the lower turnout, in part, on the “absolutely overt and brazen interference of the United States, France and other governments through their diplomatic representatives in African countries.”

Among those attending are President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa; President Macky Sall of Senegal; and President Azali Assoumani of the Comoros, who is the current chairman of the African Union.

They were among a delegation of African leaders who traveled to Ukraine and Russia in June in an attempt to broker an end to the war. But they came away with little to show for their efforts — encountering Russian air attacks in Kyiv and a meeting in St. Petersburg where Mr. Putin showed little interest in peace.

A major influence in Africa during the Cold War, Russia largely disappeared from the continent in the 1990s and early 2000s. But Mr. Putin has set about reinvigorating those ties in recent years as part of his effort to re-establish what he views as Russia’s lost glory on the world stage.

Hampered by international sanctions and a shrinking economy, the Russian leader couldn’t spend much: Moscow sends almost no humanitarian aid to Africa and its trade with the continent has hovered at about $18 billion for years, despite a promise by Mr. Putin in 2019 to increase the amount to $40 billion.

In addition, Russia offers little or no help in the areas that count to most African countries, such as climate change, debt relief and technology.

However, educational ties dating back to the Cold War remain strong. At least 35,000 Africans are studying in Russia, more than 6,000 of them on government scholarships, according to the Kremlin. And the continent has proved a strong market for Russian weapons and mercenaries.

From 2018 to 2022, Russia displaced China as the largest arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa, providing 26 percent of all arms imports to the region, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. At the same time, Wagner mercenaries deployed to the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan.

Men pose for a picture near the accreditation center of Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.Credit…Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Mr. Putin broadened those ties after the invasion of Ukraine, embracing African countries as quickly as Western countries shunned him.

In addition to Mr. Lavrov’s energetic diplomacy, the leaders of South Africa, still grateful for Soviet support in the struggle against apartheid, allowed Russia to hold joint military exercises with China off its coast in February.

Africa emerged as the most sympathetic bloc toward Russia at the United Nations: In a vote in February calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, 22 of the African Union’s 54 members abstained or did not vote. Eritrea and Mali voted against the resolution.

The International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest in March, has complicated his Africa rapprochement. Mr. Putin had to cancel a scheduled trip to South Africa for next month’s annual summit of a bloc of developing nations, known as BRICS. That spared South African officials a thorny problem: As a signatory to the criminal court, they would have been legally obliged to arrest him.

American ties with South Africa have been strained since May, when the U.S. ambassador accused the country’s government of shipping arms to Moscow.

In a handout photo provided by the Russian agency RIA Novosti, Mr. Putin sat with the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, at a meeting in St. Petersburg last month.Credit…Ramil Sitdikov/Photo host Agency RIA Novosti, via Associated Press

In his article previewing the summit, Mr. Putin portrayed himself as a champion of the African struggle to cast off the “bitter legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism.” He appealed for greater African representation at global bodies like the U.N. Security Council and the World Bank.

President Biden has issued similar calls, however, and many African countries have condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Wagner has boots on the ground in just four countries in Africa (though its influence, through pro-Russian propaganda campaigns, extends to several dozen countries).

But for many African leaders, the key question may be whether Mr. Putin remains the untouchable strongman he long proclaimed himself to be — especially since the mutiny that undermined his authority both at home and in Africa.

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