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Lavrov public relations effort

Jul 27,2022 - Last updated at Jul 27,2022

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's tour of four African countries was meant to shore up backing for Moscow in its war in Ukraine and reassure leaders that Russia will not renege on its contracts to supply grain to feed people and livestock. He began his journey in Egypt and travelled on to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Lavrov public relations effort was directed both at Africa and the Western political and military supporters of Ukraine. In Africa, he was engaged in a "soft sell" to countries longstanding friends of Russia. Moscow benefits from Soviet support for Africa's liberation movements from Western colonial rule as well as post-independence economic assistance.

Lavrov prepared for his visit by publishing an article setting out Moscow's case in leading newspapers in all four countries.

He blamed the war on Ukraine's insistence on joining NATO. For decades, Moscow has called on the alliance to halt its eastward expansion, which is seen as an existential threat to Russia. Recruiting Ukraine is crossing a “red line”. Lavrov also accused Ukraine of torpedoing peace talks by proclaiming there "will be no negotiations until Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield”.

Lavrov denied Western allegations that Russia "exports hunger" in developing countries by blocking shipments of grain from Ukrainian ports. He also held that Western sanctions against Russia have reduced deliveries of grain due to COVID disruptions of trade. He pledged that Russia will fulfill contracts on "exports of food, fertilisers, energy and other goods vital for Africa".

He indulged in a "hard sell" to the West by pointing out that Russia is not isolated and tried to counter the Western campaign to strangle Russia economically by saying this is not feasible. In spite of Western efforts to curb Russian exports, Europe continues to depend on Russian oil and natural gas while Egypt, Turkey and Bangladesh buy more that half of the wheat exported by Russia.

Western capitals and media have focused on the inability of Kyiv to export 20-25 million tonnes of wheat stored in silos because of a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports. It is, however, the world's fifth largest exporter of wheat after Canada, the US and France, Russia is the first. In 2020, Russia exported 38 million tonnes in comparison with Ukraine's 18 million tonnes.

Little wonder that Lavrov insisted on the full implementation of two agreements reached last Friday in Istanbul. The first deal, hailed in Western capitals and media, mandated the creation of "safe corridors" for the shipment of Ukrainian grain from three Black Sea ports to transit countries for delivery to customers.  The second, rarely mentioned, provided for Russian grain, which is not embargoed — to be exported without interference.  Lavrov rightly argued that the second deal compelled the West to stop "preventing Russian grain from being delivered to buyers".

He was backed up by Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin who told CNN on Monday evening that this means the US and its Western allies must not impose sanctions on shippers, insurers, and others involved in the export of Russian grain.

Kalin argued that the second deal is in Russia's interest because "even though there is no embargo, or sanctions on Russian agricultural products, [the Russians] were not able to get their grain out, because, number one, international companies were not insuring Russian ships".

"Number two...they did not have any assurances from the international community, or other countries that impose sanctions on Russia that [exports] will not be stopped or confiscated. And now there is an assurance as part of this agreement." It remains to be seen, if such assurance will be effective.

Kalin also pointed out that it is in the interest of the international community to receive "Russian agricultural products, fertilisers and other things. [It] is also in the interest of global markets in terms of food security. So, it's not only the Ukrainian grain, but also the Russian [grain] which is actually higher in quantity than that of Ukraine." Indeed! According to the figures I have mentioned earlier, Russia exports twice as much grain as Ukraine.

Lavrov was encouraged to undertake his mission by 17 African abstentions and one negative vote (Eritrea) on the UN General Assembly's March resolution condemning the war and calling for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. This was adopted by 141 votes to five out of the UN's 193 members. While African abstentions counted for almost half; the other 18 were by Asian and South American states. Among the countries visited by Lavrov, only Egypt voted in favour while Congo and Uganda abstained and Ethiopia was absent from the Assembly session when the vote was conducted.

Despite its vote for the resolution, Egypt has attempted to balance its stand on the war as it has close ties with both the West and Russia and depends on Russian as well as Ukrainian grain to feed its population of 110 million, the largest on the African continent as well as in the Middle East. Along with grain, Russia sells weapons to Egypt and Russia's state-owned energy firm, Rosatom, has begun construction of Egypt's first nuclear power plant.

Furthermore, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has recently visited Russia's ally Serbia and Ukraine's supporters France and Germany and has been suggested as a potential mediator between the sides. This would boost Sisi onto the world stage as a peacemaker at a time he has been struggling to fix a faltering economy.

Following the visit to Egypt, Lavrov met Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed. Russian-Ethiopian relations  date to the 1950s and have been influenced by Soviet support against a Somalian invasion and Eritrean and Tigrayan separatists. After war erupted in Ukraine, hundreds of former Ethiopian soldiers have volunteered to fight on the Russian side although there is no evidence that they have been actually recruited.

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