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Isolated by the West, Putin hosted a summit for leaders from Africa in St. Petersburg

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Well, the war in Ukraine has united the West in condemnation of Russia and support for Ukraine. The position of much of the rest of the world appears less certain. That was in evidence in St. Petersburg over the past couple of days where President Vladimir Putin hosted leaders from Africa for a summit. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Thanks for being with us, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: And what was Moscow hoping to achieve?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Russia has been focusing increasingly on Africa in recent years, almost trying to reassert influence it once had under the Soviet Union. You know, sometimes it can feel like a replay of the big power politics of the Cold War, and that trend has really picked up even more as Russia has faced Western condemnation over its actions in Ukraine. So events like this one, which is billed as the Russia-Africa summit, allow Moscow to show that it has not isolated as the West claims and that Russia still has plenty of friends in the rest of the world. And it's why we saw President Vladimir Putin really fete his audience. Putin hosted in his home city, the beautiful St. Petersburg, and he made a pitch he does often these days, that power had shifted away from the U.S. and Europe to what he calls a multipolar world, one where not only Russia, but Africa, will play a major role whether the West likes it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin, speaking Friday, tells the audience that in front of our very eyes, Africa is growing into a major political and economic power and the rest of the world will have to accept what he calls that objective reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

SIMON: Course, Charles, the summit takes place just as Russia has decided not to renew that U.N.-backed grain deal that delivered a lot of food to Africa. Did Putin try and overcome doubts about that?

MAYNES: Well, Putin clearly came in looking to appease critics of Russia's exit from the grain deal. On Day 1 of the summit, he announced Russia expected a record harvest with more than enough reserves to make up for lost Ukrainian exports to the African continent. Moreover, he said Russia would provide tens of thousands of tons of grain for free to several African countries. The next day, it was, we're canceling some $23 billion in debt to African nations. And yet this Russian largesse kind of bumps up against economic reality. You know, the West provides far more trade and aid to Africa. Also left unsaid here is that Russia's subsequent blockade and nearly daily bombing of Ukrainian grain facilities has led to a spike in food prices globally. And for that reason, perhaps it was unsurprising to see several of the African guests press Putin, as they have in the past, to find a negotiated settlement to end the war.

SIMON: What other ways is Russia trying to draw in allies from Africa?

MAYNES: Well, you know, earlier we talked about the Cold War with the U.S. and the Soviet Union competing in Africa with these competing political ideologies. And today there's kind of a new twist on that. You know, Putin seeks to find common cause with potential allies over what Russia calls traditional family values - in other words, conservatism. And they've really grafted that on, really, as an added front to this wider war with the West. So, for example, we saw Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on stage in St. Petersburg denouncing same-sex marriages as hedonistic and approved by the West, but not in Russia and, he implied, in large parts of Africa.

Meanwhile, military aid and weapons also hold their lure. One of the more popular stands at the summit involved new-generation weapons. Let's not forget the Soviet-made Kalashnikov machine gun is the continent's weapon of choice. There were also indications that the leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was in St. Petersburg to meet with some African delegates on the sidelines. You know, if true, it suggests that the Kremlin has, in some fashion, plans to retain Wagner services to countries in Africa as Moscow seeks to develop and deepen ties on the continent.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.