Putin’s African Powerplay

Photo of author
Written By Mohsen Salami

The Russian navy has had a fleet of warships blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports since the start of the war between the two countries in February 2022.

In July 2022, the United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal to allow civilian ships to navigate a narrow safe corridor under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The deal saw over a thousand ships carrying grain and other foodstuffs leave the Ukraine ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny/Pivdenny.

A year later, President Vladimir Putin cancelled the deal claiming pledges to Russia were never met.

Grain Of Truth

He made several demands about imports and exports, including reconnecting a Russian agricultural bank to international finance networks.

Then, the Russians launched a series of missile attacks targeting Ukraine’s port infrastructure. This blitz destroyed thousands of tons of grain, silos and warehouses.

The aim was to put Ukraine’s grain export capability out of action and to fill the void with Russian produce.

While the destruction of port facilities continued, Putin wooed African leaders with a promise of 25,000 and 50,000 tonnes of free grain for the worst drought-hit nations – a negligible amount compared with the 725,000 tonnes of food shipped by the UN’s World Food Program.

Putin’s Charm Offensive

The summit in St Petersburg is part of Putin’s charm offensive for leaders of countries in Africa and Asia.

His bargaining chips are energy, food and military support.

However, fewer than 20 out of Africa’s 54 states sent a delegation to the summit. Africa is important to Putin. His support from outside Russia is draining away. His main allies are states shunned by the rest of the world, such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

But Africa is the largest bloc of votes at the UN, even though petty disagreements and political ideology dilute that influence. The sadness for Putin is Africa doesn’t need Russia as much as he needs Africa – except for arms. Russia is the largest supplier of weapons to Africa.

Another valuable foreign policy tool for Putin is the Wagner Group of mercenary fighters.

For years, the Kremlin denied knowledge or influence over the shadowy group that furthered Putin’s goals in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner In Africa

Wagner turned up in the Syrian civil war and conducted pro-government military and security campaigns in Mali, Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya. These countries are characterised by ongoing civil strife stirred by Wagner to further the goals of the Kremlin.

Wagner started operations in Ukraine with around 70,000 mercenaries and mainly fought in the ‘meat-grinding’ battle for Bakhmut.

Then Putin‘s friend Yevgeny Prigozhin popped up and admitted he was the founder and leader of the Wagner Group and that the private army was funded and given equipment and weapons by the Kremlin.

After losing half his force seizing Bakhmut, Prigozhin marched his remaining troops within 200 kilometres of Moscow in a protest against the Russian defence ministry and military commanders.

Mow Prigozhin and his mercenaries are banished from Russia and have found a new home in Belarus.

What’s Next For Wagner?

It’s hard to say, as Putin and Prigozhin are playing their cards close to their chests.

All Wagner says is ‘active at training grounds in Belarus and Africa’, and the force is ready to defend Russia wherever and whenever needed.

However, developments in Mali may shed some light on Wagner’s future actions. The UN has deployed a 12,000-strong peace-keeping force in the country for ten years and has seen 187 deaths among the casualties.

Mali covers a huge expanse of mainly desert, regularly attacked by jihadist hardliners.

Wagner has more than 1,000 troops in Mali and looks set to expand numbers as soon as the UK contingent has left.

Kremlin’s Small Steps

The Wagner saga and Putin’s approach to the Black Sea Grain Initiative show his strategic thinking.

The Russian military steered missile attacks away from port infrastructure for a year. They cynically decided to knock out Ukraine’s hopes of maintaining the deal without worrying about the international fallout.

The plan was straightforward – the international community had no choice but to accept Russia’s new grain deal because Ukraine could no longer fulfil its role. The missile attacks on the ports assured that.

The timing was designed to pressure African leaders to back Russia to feed the hungry and bolster the Kremlin’s influence.

Scrapping the grain initiative is also retaliation against UKraine’s supporters, such as the US, Canada and NATO nations across Europe. Closing Ukraine’s ports saw a steep rise in the price of grain until the initiative kicked in and helped lower them.

Many nations fear the price of grain will soar again thanks to the Kremlin’s manipulation of the market.

There’s little doubt that Putin intends to pressure Ukraine and other nations through food price inflation.

Wagner Group FAQ

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin is the co-founder and figurehead of the Wagner Group and a close confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both started their political careers in St Petersburg. Prigozhin is often called Putin’s chef as he owns several catering businesses that fulfil contracts for The Kremlin and the Russian military.

What is an oligarch?

A Russian oligarch is a businessman or investor whose wealth multiplied on the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. When the state evaporated, soviet assets were sold off in brokered deals. The oligarchs picked up the spoils cheaply and capitalised on their good fortune by wielding political and financial power in Moscow.

Which poor countries benefited from the grain initiative?

The UN World Food Program bought 725,000 tonnes of wheat from Ukraine between July 2022 and July 2023. Two-thirds of the grain went to Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti

Where are the Wagner mercenaries now?

Sound 15,000 Wagner Group operatives are at camps in Belarus where they have started specialist training programs from Belarussian troops. Another 5,000 or so are spread across Africa.

Is Wagner a threat to NATO?

The Wagner Group is an effective fighting force of around 15,000 strong, but the group poses little threat to NATO in numbers or equipment. Since Wagner advanced towards Moscow, the Kremlin has stripped the private military company of heavy weapons, such as tanks and artillery. This makes the group toothless against NATO, which has a more potent and well-armed force.

Were Wagner fighters convicts?

The Russian military offered a deal to civilian convicts – enlist to fight with the Wagner Group for six months, and the government would offer a free pardon. Around 40,000 convicts signed up to fight in Ukraine. Most were wounded or killed in fierce fighting for the city of Bakhmut.

Can Ukraine export grain another way?

Ukraine borders Romania and Poland so that it can export grain by air, road and rail. Ukraine also has port facilities where the Danube meets the Black Sea, which could facilitate up-rive exports to Europe. However, ships can carry much more cargo than lorries and trains, making these routes slow and expensive.