BERLIN – Russia’s propaganda mission has taken flight. Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is visiting several African countries this week in an attempt to counter accusations by the West that Russia is weaponising hunger in its war with Ukraine. After meeting the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on 24 July, Lavrov is scheduled to visit Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of the Congo on his five-day tour of the continent.
“The speculations of Western and Ukrainian propaganda that Russia allegedly ‘exports hunger’ are completely unfounded,” Lavrov wrote in an article published in several African newspapers on 22 July. He added that Russia, which in the 19th century colonised a swathe of now-independent countries in its periphery, from the Caucasus to Central Asia, “has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism”.
African countries are some of the most dependent on imports of cereals from Ukraine and Russia, which together produce about a quarter of the world’s wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Twenty-five African countries import more than a third of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia, while Benin and Somalia get almost all their supply from the two countries. The figure for Egypt is about 80 per cent.
Lavrov’s visit comes days after Ukraine and Russia agreed to a landmark deal on 22 July, mediated by Turkey and the UN, intended to unblock exports of around 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The viability of the deal was immediately cast into doubt, however, by a Russian cruise missile strike on the key Ukrainian port of Odesa, hours later. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack showed Russia cannot be trusted to implement the agreement.
Russian exports of grain have also been hit with difficulties since the outbreak of war, primarily for logistical and financial reasons. Moscow blames the effect of Western sanctions.
Kyiv already expects grain production to fall about 40 per cent this year. But if Ukraine is not able to export the grain sitting in its silos now, farmers will have nowhere to store much of this year’s harvest. Some grain is leaving via road and rail, but such routes cannot make up the lost capacity of the sea route. That will translate into mounting problems in the months ahead, with potentially catastrophic consequences around the world – but particularly in countries where households spend a high proportion of their income on food.
Even countries that do not import much from Russia and Ukraine are exposed via increased competition for supplies and higher prices, which were already rising before the war began.
Lavrov’s visit to Africa is intended to allay some of the worries on the African continent around Russia’s conduct and rally diplomatic support from the non-Western world. But it is Russia’s conduct, not diplomatic niceties, that will determine whether the Global South faces an acute hunger crisis in the months to come.