Grain supply tops Putin-African Union head talks agenda

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the chairman of the African Union, Senegal’s President Macky Sall on Friday for talks expected to focus on how to get grain supplies stuck amid the fighting in Ukraine moving again.

African countries imported 44% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, according to U.N. figures, and wheat prices have soared around 45% as a result of the supply disruption, according to the African Development Bank.

“Africa has no control over production or logistics chains and is totally at the mercy of the situation,” Sall said recently.

Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, has urged the West to lift sanctions imposed over its military action in Ukraine so that grain starts flowing freely to global markets. While food and fertilizer are exempt, sanctions have targeted Russian shipping and made international shipping companies reluctant to transport Russian cargoes.

According to the Kremlin, Putin told Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi during a call last week that Moscow “is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizer on the condition that politically motivated restrictions imposed by the West are lifted.”

Britain last week accused Russia of “trying to hold the world to ransom” by demanding relief from Western sanctions to allow grain exports.

Putin hailed Russia’s warm ties with African nations in brief televised remarks at the start of his talks with Sall, but didn’t mention grain exports.

On his part, Sall in his opening remarks sided with the Kremlin’s view that Western sanctions have exacerbated grain and fertilizer shortages, threatening global food security.

Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. Ukrainian authorities and the West have accused Russia of blocking Ukrainian ports to halt exports, endangering world food supplies. Russia has denied blocking Ukrainian ports and called on Ukraine to remove mines to allow safe shipping.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would give Sall a “detailed explanation of its vision of the situation with Ukrainian grain,” and “explain again what’s going on there, who mined the ports, what is necessary to do to allow the grain flow to resume.” Peskov insisted again that Russia wasn’t blocking the ports.

The Russian military has proposed corridors to allow foreign ships to safely leave ports along the Black Sea. Ukraine has said it was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle but voiced concern that Russia could use them to attack Odesa and other Ukrainian ports.

“The mines planted by the Ukrainian armed forces hinder the export of grain, nothing else,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at Friday’s briefing. “After the sea area is demined, we will be ready to ensure the safe export of grain, including escorting transport ships to the international waters of the Black Sea.”

The supply chain issues brought on by the fighting in Ukraine come as large portions of Africa already were grappling with drought and other problems.

Senegal was one of 17 African nations that abstained from voting on the U.N. resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

The United Nations has warned that 18 million people are facing severe hunger in the Sahel, the part of Africa just below the Sahara Desert where farmers are facing their worst agricultural production in more than a decade. Another 13 million people face severe hunger in the Horn of Africa region as a result of a persistent drought.

With the conflict in Ukraine now in its fourth month, world leaders have ramped up calls for solutions. World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said about 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain is in storage and another 25 million tons could be harvested next month.