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MOSCOW: The Russian president will on Thursday host leaders of African countries for a summit in his native Saint Petersburg, as the continent braces for the consequences of Moscow’s withdrawal from the Ukraine grain export deal.

Isolated on the international scene since launching a full-scale military intervention in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin still has support in several African countries.

“It is important that in recent years our cooperation with Africa has reached a new level. We intend to further develop it,” Putin said in a welcome letter to participants of the summit.

Seventeen African leaders including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa are expected at the Russia-Africa summit set to take place on Thursday and Friday.

The Kremlin has accused Western countries of trying to prevent African states from participating in the summit.

The summit is the second of its kind after an inaugural one held in 2019 in Sochi, southern Russia.

Putin is expected to conduct bilateral talks with his counterparts on the sidelines and will deliver an address at the plenary session.

In the speech he will discuss his vision of Russia-Africa ties and the “formation of a new world order”, according to Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov.

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

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

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed African leaders attending the summit to demand answers about the grain disruptions that have propelled poorer nations towards crisis.

“They know exactly who’s to blame for this current situation,” Blinken said of the leaders.

“My expectation would be that Russia will hear this clearly from our African partners,” he said Thursday during a visit to New Zealand.

‘Find common ground’

Moscow has sought to reassure African partners, saying it understands their “concern” on the issue and is ready to export grain for free to African countries that need it.

Putin will also discuss Ukraine during a working lunch with a group of African heads of state on Friday, the Kremlin has said.

Putin claims Ukrainian counteroffensive ‘failed’

The summit will be an opportunity to exchange views on key issues, according to Vsevolod Sviridov of the Centre for African Studies at HSE University.

Since the coronavirus pandemic and the launch of the military offensive in Ukraine, “the framework in which Russia and Africa interact has seriously changed”, Sviridov told AFP.

“It is necessary to find common ground, to explain to each other positions on topical issues, for example, the grain deal,” he added.

Putin has already held talks Wednesday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, praising their joint energy projects.

Representatives of African states continued to arrive in the former imperial capital ahead of the summit, including delegations from Mozambique and Libya, Russian state news agency TASS said Thursday.

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 emphasising Russia’s stand against Western “imperialism”.

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.

The summit in Saint Petersburg comes a month ahead of a summit of leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) 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.

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