We need Africa’s support against Russia: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba

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UKRAINIAN Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, recently briefed journalists from various countries on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how it has impacted on food security on the African continent.

Lesotho Times Editor, Herbert Moyo, was among the journalists who attended the online briefing and subsequently interviewed Mr Kuleba on the ongoing war between the two countries which began in February this year.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

Lesotho Times: Can Lesotho and other African countries afford to be neutral in this conflict?  And what does this invasion really mean for African countries?  Why should Africa care about the events in Ukraine?

Kuleba:  For nearly for 300 years, since the mid-17th century, Ukraine was like a colony of Russia.  They were suppressing our identity and our language.  They insisted on the supremacy of Russian language, Russian culture and Russian civilisation.  The official Russian narrative was that Ukrainians were not able to govern themselves without Russian bosses from the then capital St Petersburg and later, Moscow.

Secondly, imagine having a neighbour attacking you simply because he doesn’t like you.  If Russia succeeds here in Ukraine, this will be a clear message to Africa, and all countries who want to attack their neighbours that there is no world order that can protect them.  It will be a clear message that no international law can protect them.  It will mean that the mighty can do whatever they want to impose their will on smaller countries.

Thirdly, there is the issue of food security.  The longer that this war lasts, the more difficult it will be for Ukraine to resume exporting its agricultural produce to your countries, and the more difficult it will be for many students from African countries to come and receive education in Ukraine.

For these reasons, African countries should stand by Ukraine.  I’m sure you understand very well how it feels to be attacked by a power that cannot abandon the idea of its supremacy over your nation due to its colonial and imperialistic ambitions.

You can’t afford to be neutral because you are as much interested in the strength of international law and playing by the rules as we are, and because the sooner this war ends, the sooner problems that never existed in our bilateral relations will cease to exist.

For these reasons, I believe it makes sense for African countries to stand by Ukraine.

Meredith Lee, (Politico-USA): What is Ukraine’s view of the UN talks with Russia along with the Turkish efforts to allow grain exports to navigate Russia’s blockade in the Black Sea?  I’m also wondering if you’ve heard from any officials from foreign countries who are currently willing to send naval ships into the Black Sea for the purpose of escorting grain ships. 

Kuleba:  Turkey is playing a constructive role in finding a solution.  We haven’t reached a solution but the good news is that the United Nations have a plan.

What is needed now is for all sides to agree on each and every detail of that plan and to implement it. And Turkey is playing an important role in facilitating these talks.

It is true that ensuring the safety of vessels and the passage of commercial vessels carrying Ukrainian agricultural products at the Odessa harbour is very high on our agenda.

We do not have any confirmation from countries that they are ready to send their navy ships to participate in this operation of escorting grain ships.  But talks with them continue, and we are exploring any solutions that will help to address the security issue.  

Wael Badran, (Al Ittihad United Arab Emirates):  The US says it has not imposed any sanctions on Russian food and fertiliser, while Moscow says there are sanctions and these are the reason for the world food crisis.   Russia also says that waters of the Black and Azov Seas were mined by Ukraine, and that is preventing exports and contributing to the world food crisis.  What do you have to say about that?

Kuleba: Russia is playing a hunger game. Moscow is trying to enrage African countries by speaking of the alleged negative impact of Western sanctions on food exports to the continent.  But this is all a trick.

They (Russia) are only fighting to export their grain and other agricultural products to Africa.  They are not talking about allowing us to trade, to export our agricultural products.  Their reason is very simple: their ultimate goal is to squeeze Ukraine out of its traditional markets in African countries.

So they are playing their hunger games in an attempt to make more money by exporting their agricultural products, hiking prices, putting you at risk, putting us at risk, and blaming the West for that.  I’m not aware of any sanctions that would prohibit Ukraine’s exports or limit Ukraine’s exports of agricultural products or Russia’s exports of agricultural products.

What I am aware of is that a fortnight ago, Russia deliberately hit with a missile the largest grain storage facility in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It had grain and everything was burned down.  It was a deliberate attack.

Why would they do it if they seriously cared about providing you and other countries with this grain?  Why burn it down?  Why do they continue blocking the Odessa harbour if they are serious about allowing us to export our grain to you?

There is a lot of information coming from different sides but I’m here to provide you with facts and with an in-depth explanation of the motives behind Russia’s actions.

Peter Fabricius, (The Daily Maverick South Africa):  Two weeks ago, our President (Cyril) Ramaphosa spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at the end of it they issued a statement about the possibility of South Africa buying Russian grain and fertiliser.  Is this something Ukraine would be concerned about given what you’ve said about the theft of your grain? Could it be that South Africa might be buying stolen goods?  

Kuleba:  As I mentioned before, we are seeing a strategy of the Russian Federation to replace Ukraine in our traditional markets.  We clearly see Russian ships taking stolen Ukrainian grain to countries like Syria.

Sometimes the grain is taken to Russia and then exported from there without a clear indication of where this grain comes from.  So we are deeply concerned with everything that is happening because as I have already said, we have a crystal-clear reputation as a supplier of agricultural products to the global market.  And we do not want that reputation to be ruined because of Russian propaganda and lies.

Secondly, we are just as interested in selling our crops as you are in buying them, because what is food for you is revenue to us.  These exports mean a lot to Ukraine.  This money (earned from exports) makes a huge difference to us in these times of war when our economy is shrinking and we have lost so much because of the Russian bombardments and occupation.

We have two things to say to other countries: firstly, please desist from buying stolen Ukrainian grain. Secondly, as your reliable suppliers, we need you to help us to solve the existing problem and we will continue trading with you on good terms.

Cyrille Milandou, (Top Kongo FM- DRC): The shortage of Ukrainian wheat has paralysed the DRC in terms of its food requirements.  How many tonnes of wheat does Ukraine produce annually?  

Kuleba:  Last year, we exported 15, 8 million tonnes of wheat to the global market.  These numbers give you a very clear answer to the argument sometimes made by Russia that Ukraine is a non-player in global food market and its supplies can be replaced with supplies from other countries, first and foremost from Russia. This is a lie.  The absence of Ukraine’s agricultural products on the global market cannot be compensated from other places, especially when it comes to sunflower oil.

As I have already said, we are deeply interested in exporting our agricultural products to you and across the world.  For us, it’s an issue of our economic survival.  For you, the lack of our agricultural products is an issue of physical survival.

Since 1991 when Ukraine gained independence, we were a very reliable supplier for you. We understand that this war and the support that Ukraine receives from various countries to win this war cannot be bought, cannot be squeezed out by blackmail, by pressure.  This is not how we do things.  We are fighting a war against an aggressor who attacked us.

We are not blackmailing anyone, unlike Russia, who is already blackmailing the world. Russia is saying if you do not help us to have the sanctions lifted, you will not get the grain.  Isn’t this clear blackmail?  So who’s trying to take advantage of this situation?  Definitely not us.

Carien Du Plessis, (Business Day- South Africa):  Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have shown us how important it is for Africa to become more self-sufficient.  Do you have any thoughts about how Ukraine, perhaps in the future and in peaceful times, can support countries on the continent with agricultural expertise or partnerships? 

Kuleba:  We have invested a lot of resources, both financial and intellectual, in upgrading our agricultural sector to make it more technological, to make it more efficient, and we are more than happy to share our experience.

We have our own technologies.  We’re very advanced in digitalising our economy.  We are happy to build bonds and partnerships with African countries to bring our technologies to your countries, and so that you can benefit from them.

We live in the 21st century and technologies can solve many problems.  

Kuleba’s concluding remarks: Let me reaffirm our longstanding commitment to developing ties with the African Union and African states.  Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy recently addressed leaders of the African Union and emphasised how important it is for Africa’s voice to be heard on the global arena.

Two years ago, we in the foreign ministry adopted our first African strategy in Ukraine’s foreign policy — a first in 30 years of Ukraine’s independence.  The president also confirmed that we will soon have a special representative for relations with African states.  These moves signal our sincere willingness to deepen political and cultural ties, people-to-people contacts, and boost trade with your countries.

For many years, Ukraine has been a reliable and trustworthy partner of African states, especially in agricultural trade.  There have never been any major problems in delivering our high-quality food products to your nations.

As a mighty agricultural nation, Ukraine has grown millions of tonnes of wheat, corn, sunflower, and other products, and happily delivered them to African markets.  We have always been proud of our role as a food security guarantor.   

And then came our darkest day in Ukraine’s modern history: February 24, 2022.  The Russian army launched a massive and devastating attack on our country from all directions — from air, land, and sea.  Russian warships approached our Black Sea ports in an attempt to capture them.  Four months later, they still remain there as Russia continues its invasion and wants to destroy our country, whatever it takes.

When Russia started its invasion, it perfectly knew what consequences this will have, not only for Ukraine but for the entire world.  Its relentless naval blockade of our seaports destroys the lives of people far from the battlefield, affecting the global food system previously already weakened by climate change and Covid-19 pandemic.  It is truly horrible that Russia plays hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other.

Furthermore, by gambling with resources like food, Russia runs a new wave of colonisation aiming to reconfigure the global food system and make it more Russia-dependent than ever.  Russia has always had friendly relations with many African states.

Today, Moscow is afraid that African nations will turn their backs on Russia because of the food crisis it has caused.  This is the main reason why Russian officials keep lying that it is Ukraine, United States, European Union or anyone else — anyone but Russia to blame for food shortages, rising prices, and the risk of hunger.

I sincerely call on all of our African friends to reject these lies.  Ukraine has always been happy to export its agricultural products, and we will be happy to resume this as soon as possible.  We do not put forward any special conditions.  We just want Russia to end its blockade and allow unhindered, protected exports.   

In a few days, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and President of Senegal Macky Sall will both take part in the G7 Summit.  I am confident that as chairperson of the African Union, President Sall plays a leading role in resolving the food crisis.  It is important for all of us to unite efforts and speak in one voice with Russia to make it end its naval blockade and allow Ukrainian food exports to be resumed.

Ukraine provides 10 percent of the world’s wheat, 14 percent of the world’s corn, and 47 percent of all sunflower oil on the planet.  About 44 percent of wheat imported to Libya comes from Ukraine, 42 percent for Tunisia, 26 percent for Egypt, 26 percent for Ethiopia, and 15 percent for Morocco.

This illustrates just how much Ukraine itself relies and depends on its agricultural exports.  And trust me, we have no intention to shoot ourselves in the foot by stopping exports of our agricultural products to the global market.  We want to export our agricultural products to you as badly as you want to receive them.

There is only one reason why both ends of this supply chain — which is us and you — cannot benefit from these exports.  It’s the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports as a result of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine.

The truth is that we are sparing no effort to deliver these exports to you as soon as possible, also because this makes part of our budget, and now suffering from economic hurdles, economic difficulties, we need to make money on the global market by selling our agricultural products and supplying them to their consumers.

The sheer magnitude of the unfolding food crisis provoked by Russia’s war on Ukraine is unprecedented.  And it is not only about the naval blockade.  In the course of the war, Russia deliberately targets our agricultural infrastructure to inflict maximum damage on our food-producing capacity.

By doing this, Moscow also deliberately inflicts damage on African states that rely on Ukrainian agricultural exports.  Russian missile strikes have already damaged and destroyed many farms, stocks of food and seeds, silos, warehouses, oil deposits, agriculture machinery and equipment.

The Russians also steal grain from the temporarily occupied territories in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.  Facts prove that up to 400 000 tonnes of grain crops have already been stolen as of May.

Russian forces have riddled Ukrainian fields with mines to prevent farmers from cultivating their crops for years.  According to the recent preliminary estimate, about 13 percent of Ukrainian territory has been contaminated by Russian mines and other explosive remnants.  This creates threats of a multiyear global food crisis.

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