(Bloomberg) -- The black-and-red bulk carrier AT 27 arrived in Guinea on Africa’s west coast last month. On it was a typical cargo: 25,000 tons of wheat destined for Mali, a neighboring country that’s facing severe food insecurity.   

The goods, though, were not part of any ordinary trade. The 170-meter-long ship docking in Conakry was one of several dispatching free grain promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin to six African countries. And the largesse comes with a different price.

Along with security assistance, arms supplies and Russian-sponsored beauty pageants, the donations are part of the Kremlin’s efforts at closer ties with Africa while it wages war in Ukraine. What Russia gets in return is support for its ambitions and access to markets that can potentially soften some more of the impact of US and European sanctions.

The Kremlin is steadily making inroads, taking advantage of instability in countries that used to rely on former colonial ties with Europe.

During the Russia-Africa summit last year, Putin promised up to 50,000 tons of free grain each for Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea, some of which have since reinforced their ties with Moscow. The Russian Agriculture Ministry said this week that 200,000 tons of “humanitarian aid for Africa” had been delivered.

In the past months, Burkina Faso has seen the arrival of Russian troops and Moscow opening an embassy. Mali, which has avoided criticizing the war in Ukraine, is getting a Russian-sponsored gold refinery.

Central African Republic is planning to host a Russian military base and has received weapons, security expertise and training. Eritrea voted against a UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Russian aid doesn’t necessarily go to the countries that need it the most, but to those who are Russia’s “best allies,” said Seidik Abba, who heads the CIRES think tank focusing on Africa’s Sahel region.

“Take Eritrea, poor, isolated and determined to oppose Western imperialism,” Abba said from Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott. “Russia goes to these countries with strained relations with the West and it reinforces the political divides.”

Moscow forged relations with African nations during decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, training Zimbabwean liberation fighters and providing military aid and scholarships for students from Mali and Burkina Faso to study at Soviet universities.

Leaders of those countries have highlighted those former relations as they have moved to cut ties with the West — mainly France —  and the fact that Russia never colonized those countries.

Moscow’s recent donations are also reminiscent of the way that Washington used food as a tool of statecraft for decades, according to Jennifer Clapp, an academic who has written a book about food aid.

Now the world’s top wheat exporter, Russia is able to offer this surplus grain for free in part because of the Kremlin’s success in rebuilding it into an agricultural powerhouse in the past two decades.

“Russia is following some of those patterns that the big donors used to do,” said Clapp, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “It’s giving tiny amounts and trying to get a big political benefit.”

Russia has a glut of grain after several bumper harvests, and the total promised by Putin is a tiny share of Russia’s exports of 60 million tons. But publicity about the direct grain donations has helped give the impression that Russia is on Africa’s side, according to Abba at CIRES.

Almost half of the nations on the continent import at least 30% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

Food prices soared after Putin’s invasion cut off Ukraine’s exports by sea. Shipments were disrupted further by the Kremlin’s withdrawal last year from a deal allowing Kyiv to ship via the Black Sea, as well as repeated strikes on port facilities. The inflation led to widespread protests in Africa. 

Food is not targeted by sanctions, though some Russian agricultural exporters faced financing and logistics issues in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Russian wheat exports have since hit record levels and fertilizer shipments have also recovered, reducing prices.

“When Russia refused to renew the grain deal, it risked coming out looking like the devil,” Abba said. With its donations, even if not a significant quantity, “Russia is the one that really acknowledges the struggle of Africans, who sees their difficulties,” he said.

Back in Conakry, the grain for Mali would likely cover import needs for just two weeks, according to Soyae Konate, an official with OPAM, the government’s grain agency. In addition, the shipment was delayed by a deadly explosion at the Guinean port, and because fees weren’t paid on time. 

Even so, Mali’s junta-led government has severed military ties with its former western allies and is moving closer to Russia. As in other countries across the region, Russian flags have become a symbol of anti-Western sentiment.

“For Russia, it’s goodwill — in the end it’s good PR for both countries,” Malian opposition leader Oumar Mariko said in an interview in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital. “The junta needs to show they still have powerful friends after cutting ties with its old allies.”

In Burkina Faso, about 100 Russian troops arrived in the capital Ouagadougou last month, the first deployment of the Africa Corps, an armed force to replace the now-disbanded Wagner group’s mercenaries in Africa. 

Russian state TV in the past month showed white bags of wheat marked “gift from the Russian Federation to Burkina Faso” and printed with the flags of both countries.

“It shows Russia’s solidarity for the Burkinabe people and the good, strong relations between our two countries,” Nandy Some-Diallo, Burkina Faso’s minister for solidarity and humanitarian action, said at a ceremony to mark the donation in January.

In Somalia, Russia hasn’t been an influential player since the end of the Cold War, but now it’s vying with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and western countries for a foothold there, according to Nisar Majid, who manages the Somalia country program at the London School of Economics. The country has received two free grain shipments.

“The war in Ukraine and the current polarized global environment can play out in different parts of Africa, including in Somalia,” said Majid. “And food aid becomes just part of that game.”

--With assistance from Mohamed Omar Ahmed, Agnieszka de Sousa, Simon Marks, Godfrey Marawanyika, Neil Munshi, Michael Ovaska and Kateryna Chursina.

(Putin's Free Grain for Africa Comes With a Political Price)

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