Russians bearing gifts shove Ukraine aside to win over Global South
The battle for hearts and minds is being fought with shiploads of grain and fertilizer.
Of the many ships sailing toward Mombasa, Kenya’s vast Indian Ocean port, today, two have particular geopolitical significance: One is carrying some 25,000 metric tons of Ukrainian grain; the other around 34,000 tons of Russian fertilizer.
As their all-out war drags into a second year, Ukraine and Russia are fighting another battle for the hearts and minds of the Global South. Instead of troops and tanks, they are deploying shiploads of grain and fertilizer.
"For Moscow, it’s the West against the rest, and for Kyiv, it’s Russia against everyone else,” says Samuel Ramani, author of a book on Russia’s resurgent influence in Africa. "Which narrative prevails depends on who is seen to be feeding — and who starving — the poorest countries in the world."
In November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched a humanitarian food program, promising to send up to 60 shipments of wheat by mid-2023 to feed some five million people in countries facing famine.
The same month, Russian chemicals company Uralchem struck an agreement with the United Nations to donate 260,000 tons of stranded fertilizer to African countries most at risk of food insecurity.
Africa is in need of both. Prices were high before Russia invaded Ukraine and blockaded its Black Sea ports in February last year. This cut off net importers and sent prices soaring further, plunging the continent — and much of the world — into a full-blown crisis of food security.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia are in need of African support. Both are vying for African votes at the U.N.
For many African governments, with hunger-ravaged citizens and dwindling foreign exchange reserves, all help — wherever it comes from — is welcome. But Russia’s powers of persuasion are proving increasingly compelling.
In a recent U.N. vote calling for Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine,” almost half of the countries that abstained or opposed the motion were African.
Black Sea grain deal
A deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports to pass through Russia’s blockades in the Black Sea came up for renewal on Saturday. Russia said it had agreed to extend the deal, but only for another 60 days — rather than the 120 days foreseen in the original agreement.
Some 24 million tons of Ukrainian produce have been transported so far under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was initially brokered by the U.N. and Turkey last July and extended once in November.
The Kremlin’s biggest gripe: the deal does not address obstacles to its own fertilizer and food exports — which the U.N. has agreed to facilitate for three years. It’s an issue that is sure to come up when U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels next week.
Russia has spun its brinkmanship over the extension as driving a hard bargain to “negotiate a better deal so that food comes more equitably to Africa,” said Ramani, an Oxford University scholar whose new book "Russia in Africa" charts Russia’s path from post-Soviet collapse to resurgence as a regional great power.
Moscow wants African leaders to push against Western sanctions that target its fertilizer oligarchs and Russia’s main agricultural bank, and exclude Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system.
When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February of last year, Kyiv scrambled to mount a response, looking West for allies and arms. Moscow looked South.
The Kremlin unleashed its diplomats and mercenaries on a multi-front offensive, from the Moscow-backed Wagner Group replacing departing French troops in Mali, to investments in Eritrea, to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s many visits to the continent.
Lavrov’s message: European sanctions are to blame for food price hikes and fertilizer shortages that are driving many to the brink of famine; not Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Black Sea blockade.
Russia is now backing up its propaganda onslaught with donations of fertilizer. With the help of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), a first shipment of 20,000 tons of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) fertilizer from Russia’s Uralchem arrived — to much fanfare — in Malawi last week.
“A true friend knows no weather. A true friend comes to the rescue when you need them the most. And you just demonstrated that to us," Malawi’s Minister of Agriculture Sam Dalitso Kawale said, addressing representatives of the WFP, the Russian government and Uralchem at a handover ceremony near the capital Lilongwe on March 6.
The war in Ukraine has made people sit up and take notice of the importance of fertilizers for food security, according to Sebastian Nduva, program manager of the International Fertilizer Development Center’s Africa Fertilizer initiative. “As of right now, fertilizer is the buzzword,” he said.
Although fertilizer prices have come down recently, they remain double their levels before the coronavirus pandemic, said Sheila Komen Keino, regional director for the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP). Many African countries lack the dollars to buy them.
The impact is visible in the fields. Looking at farmers’ crops, “you can just tell they’re not going to [harvest] anything,” said Keino. Uralchem’s “donation goes a long way,” she said, adding that Russia will “make some new friends out of this.”
Struggling Malawian farmers have had a long wait, however, and for this it is easy to blame EU sanctions.
Uralchem’s founder Dmitry Mazepin and the U.N. first agreed to send a shipment of the firm’s fertilizer stock stranded in Europe to Malawi back in November. Mazepin is under individual sanctions over his personal connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his company is not: When Brussels issued the sanctions in March 2022, he stepped down as CEO and sold his controlling stake in the firm. EU and U.S. sanctions also exempt Russia’s food and fertilizer exports.
Still, it took four months for the shipment to reach the southern African country, which the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WFP put on their list of hunger hotspots last June. First it was held up waiting for clearance in the Netherlands, and then stuck in Mozambique.
“As one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of fertilizers, we understand our special role and responsibility in securing food supply to those who need it most,” Dmitry Konyaev, Uralchem’s new CEO, told POLITICO in an email.
“What does not help solving the global food crisis is the fact that despite the food and fertilizer being officially exempt from international sanctions placed on Russia, over 260,000 tons of fertilizer produced by Uralchem remain essentially blocked in the EU,” he added.
Grain from Ukraine
While Russia is keeping friends with lavish fertilizer donations, Zelenskyy’s Grain from Ukraine initiative is falling short.
“The numbers are far smaller than one may have expected,” said Christopher Fomunyoh, African regional director at the U.S. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and one of the Grain from Ukraine ambassadors appointed by Kyiv.
But, he hopes, once more deliveries get going and populations start benefiting from them, more development partners will invest in the initiative and speed up the process.
As well as providing immediate relief to countries facing hunger, the initiative could open the door to further Ukraine-Africa collaboration, said Fomunyoh. There is a lot more that African countries can gain from Ukraine, from agricultural technology to fertilizer, he explained.
Despite the hopeful future, he said there was a risk that, just when people are beginning to see the impact of it, Ukraine will have to shut the initiative down because of falling production. This would “call into question [Ukraine’s] credibility and the credibility of other countries that have bought into this initiative,” said Fomunyoh.
The Ukrainian government is “in the process” of achieving its targets for its humanitarian initiative, Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi told POLITICO, adding that while Western donors foot the bill for some of the shipments, Ukraine has also paid for others.
Ukraine’s agricultural products flow to 70 percent of Africa’s countries, Solskyi pointed out in an interview: “It is very important for us to demonstrate right now that despite the war, despite the difficulties that we face, we understand that they have difficulties too.”
Ukraine wants to increase its number of embassies and trade missions in Africa, he said, referring to Zelenksyy’s commitment last year to build embassies across the continent by mid-2023. “As the past year demonstrates, we can compete with Russia in many different [arenas],” said Solskyi.
But Ukraine is grasping for influence and U.N. votes in a region where many ruling parties have historical ties to Russia, and others share its historic anti-Westernism. “Even though they’re by far the more to blame for the [food] crisis, the Russian campaign, I think, is winning,” said author Ramani.
This story has been updated.