African leaders visit Russia to discuss their peace plan with Putin, after Ukraine trip
St. Petersburg(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday interrupted opening remarks by African leaders seeking to mediate in the Ukraine conflict to deliver a list of reasons why he believed many of their proposals were misguided.
Putin first welcomed leaders from Senegal, Egypt, Zambia, Uganda, Congo Republic, Comoros and South Africa to the 18th-century Konstantinovsky Palace on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, stressing Russia’s commitment to the continent.
But after presentations from the Comoran, Senegalese and South African leaders, he stepped in to challenge the assumptions of the plan before the round of comments from all the representatives could go any further.
Putin reiterated his position that Ukraine and the West had started the conflict long before Russia sent its armed forces over the border in February last year.
He said the West, not Russia, was responsible for a sharp rise in global food prices early last year.
He told the delegation that Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports that Russia has permitted for the past year were doing nothing to alleviate Africa’s difficulties with high food prices because they had largely gone to wealthy countries.
He said Russia had never refused talks with the Ukrainian side, which had been blocked by Kyiv.
The African plan includes a call for all children caught up in the conflict to be returned to where they came from, but Putin said Russia was not preventing any Ukrainian children from returning home.
“We took them out of a conflict zone, saving their lives,” he said.
The African leaders are seeking agreement on a series of “confidence building measures” even as Ukraine last week began a counteroffensive to push back Russian forces from Ukrainian territory they occupy.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa laid out the 10 points of the African initiative, telling Putin:
“We’ve come here to listen to you, and through you the Russian people, and encourage you to enter negotiations with Ukraine in order to put an end to the difficult ordeal.
“We gave ourselves this mission because, as Africans, unfortunately, we have had to manage numerous conflicts, and it’s through dialogue and negotiations that we have succeeded at resolving them.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had said after meeting the leaders in Kyiv on Friday that peace talks with Russia would be possible only after Moscow withdrew its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory.
He added that he could not understand what could be gained from the delegation meeting Putin.
Putin said Russia was “open to constructive dialogue with anyone who wants to establish peace on the principles of fairness and acknowledgement of the legitimate interests of the parties”.
However, Russia has said repeatedly that any settlement must take account of “new realities”, meaning its declared annexation of five Ukrainian provinces, four of which it only partially controls.
Putin and the African leaders weren’t expected to comment after the meeting, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold a briefing.
Speaking at the forum on Friday, Putin declared that the first Russian tactical nuclear weapons have been deployed to Belarus, describing the move as a deterrent against Western efforts to defeat Russia in Ukraine. He previously said that the deployment would begin in July.
The African peace mission comes as Ukraine launches a counteroffensive to dislodge the Kremlin’s forces from occupied areas, using Western-supplied advanced weapons in attacks in several sections of more than the 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line.