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Ukraine Grain Concerns Loom Ahead of Russia-Africa Summit

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, poses for a photo with leaders of African countries at the Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 24, 2019.

MOSCOW - Russia will host African leaders this week for a summit aimed at boosting ties amid concerns in Africa over the suspension of a deal on Ukrainian grain exports.

The summit starting Thursday is the second of its kind after an inaugural one that was held in 2019 in Sochi in southern Russia. Several African leaders are expected at the Saint Petersburg summit, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

"Today the partnership is constructive, confident and turned towards the future," President Vladimir Putin wrote on the Kremlin website.

The end of a deal that has allowed Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea to global markets, including Africa, is set to dominate the agenda.

Russia pulled out of the deal earlier this month, saying a promise to allow Russian exports had not been honored.

Over a year, the deal allowed around 33 million tons of grain to leave Ukrainian ports, helping to stabilize global food prices and avert shortages.

In the last few days, Moscow has sought to reassure African partners, saying it understands their "concern" on the issue.

The Kremlin has said that "without any doubt" it is ready to export grain for free to African countries that need it.

Putin has said Moscow could return to the agreement but only if the part of the deal allowing Russian grain and fertilizer is fully implemented.

Isolated on the international scene since launching the military campaign in Ukraine, Putin still has support in several African countries.

Competition for Africa

Since the start of the Ukraine offensive, Russia has sought to strengthen diplomatic and security ties with Africa.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been on two tours of the continent so far this year, trying to win over leaders to Moscow's side by emphasizing Russia's support against Western "imperialism."

Experts say the push for more Russian influence in Africa is seen mainly in a series of security contracts and through assistance on social media campaigns.

Russia's Wagner mercenary group has been a major player in the security sphere in Africa but its failed mutiny against Russia's military leadership last month has cast doubt on the future of the group's operations on the continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Moscow of seeking Africa's "destabilization" — a charge quickly rejected by Russia which has in turn pointed to France's colonial past.

"Russia is developing friendly, constructive relations based on mutual respect," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier.

African leaders have for their part sought a higher profile role in the diplomacy around the conflict in Ukraine.

A delegation of African leaders visited Moscow and Kyiv last month to urge both sides to cease hostilities but the initiative had little effect.

The summit in St. Petersburg comes a month ahead of a summit of leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which is due to take place in Johannesburg.

South Africa has said that Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant for his actions in Ukraine, will not be attending in person.