CNN  — 

A summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and African leaders began in St. Petersburg on Thursday, with a far lower turnout than previous years.

Putin has been seeking to strengthen ties with African countries and offered to send free grain to the continent, something the UN warned would not make up for Russia pulling out of a crucial grain deal. Russia has also been targeting Ukrainian ports.

Just 17 heads of African states are attending this year, the Kremlin has confirmed, less than half of the 43 heads of state that attended the 2019 conference.

In the run-up to the event, the Kremlin fumed over the poor turnout, and accused the United States and its Western allies of putting “unprecedented pressure” on African countries in an attempt to derail the summit.

Among those absent is Kenyan President William Ruto, whose government has been critical of Russia’s recent decision to withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal, describing the move as a “stab in the back of global food security prices.”

Moscow made the decision to withdraw from the deal – which ensured the safe export of Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world – on July 17, again sparking fears over global food supplies, particularly in parts of Africa that are reliant on exports from Russia and Ukraine.

Many African countries rely heavily on on Russia and Ukraine for their grain imports. Between 90-100% of the wheat Somalia and Eritrea needs comes from the two countries, UN data shows.

The shortage of grains has worsened food insecurity on the continent and shot up food prices, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Some African politicians – further than simply not attending the summit – have expressed grave concerns about Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine.

“I don’t think that this moment in time is a good time for summits in Russia. Because Russia is involved in a war, a conflict,” said Raila Odinga, the Kenyan opposition leader.

“Africa needs to take a very firm stance on this issue. It’s a question of right and wrong. Therefore, my view is that we cannot be neutral in the place of an aggression. You must take a stand one way or another,” Odinga said.

Despite the food crisis, Russia has allies in Africa. During a vote by the UN last year condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Eritrea was one of only four nations globally that openly endorsed the invasion. Others were Belarus, North Korea, and Syria.

But attitudes vary. While 17 others on the continent, including South Africa voted to abstain. Eight other African nations did not put in a vote at all. A further 28 African states voted to condemn Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.

Last month, an African delegation led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led a “peace mission” to Russia and Ukraine to broker peace talks between the warring nations. The peace mission did not achieve its desired goal, with the delegation unable to persuade Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to end the war - now in its second year.

Wagner leader appears on sidelines

The African states being represented at the St. Petersburg summit will be keen to sway Russia into rejoining the grain deal, and Putin has courted African leaders for years in a deliberate effort to broaden Moscow’s global influence. At the last summit in 2019, Russia announced arms deals worth billions of dollars for the continent, along with a plan to double its trade volume with the region.

Russia’s Wagner mercenaries have also been deployed in some African states. A CNN investigation from 2022 showed how an elaborate Russian scheme was plundering Sudan’s riches in a bid to fortify Russia against Western sanctions and to buttress Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder and chief, was spotted on the sidelines of the summit on Thursday, his first sighting inside Russia since he led an armed rebellion against the country’s military last month.

Prigozhin was seen meeting with an African dignitary who is part of the Central African Republic delegation, according to accounts associated with the mercenary group.

Wagner has had a presence in the Central African Republic for several years, as previously reported by CNN.

CNN was able to geolocate the photograph of Prigozhin and the dignitary to the Trezzini Palace Hotel in St. Petersburg, where, according to Russian media, the Wagner founder has kept an office. The hotel was one of the locations searched by Russian authorities on July 6, after the rebellion.

Since then, Prigozhin had only been seen in public on July 19, when he seemingly appeared in a video inside Belarus, apparently greeting Wagner fighters at a base in Asipovichy.

Russia’s free grain pledge

At this week’s summit, Putin is working against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, which has driven the country into diplomatic isolation and prompted heavy sanctions from the West. He enjoys more support from some African nations, however, some of whom are yet to condemn the invasion.