South African conspiracy communities ‘targeted’ by Putin’s propaganda against ‘world starvation’ critics
- Russian diplomats are pushing the narrative that sanctions, rather than Russian blockades, are causing grain and fertilizer shortages in Africa.
- Russian embassy officials across Africa also blame the West for the famine crisis.
- A think tank that analyzes online disinformation says online conspiracy communities in South Africa have also been targeted by propaganda
European governments have been alarmed by a Russian disinformation campaign that seeks to deflect criticism that President Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine risks leaving millions in Africa facing starvation.
Russian diplomats have launched a media offensive in recent months to push the rhetoric that sanctions, rather than Russian blockades, are causing grain and fertilizer shortages in Africa. The public relations onslaught shows how Ukraine’s months-long war is becoming a global propaganda battle as prices for food, fuel and crop nutrients rise.
EU and UK officials who recently met their African counterparts at meetings in New York and Rwanda have expressed concern that the Russian message is gaining traction, senior EU diplomats who have said asked not to be identified. In response, European governments are stepping up their engagement with the continent’s leaders and stepping up their own information campaigns to counter the Russian narrative, the diplomats said.
A senior European intelligence officer said the Kremlin had fabricated the debate as a way to get sanctions lifted and intended to use the threat of world hunger as a negotiating tool in any future peace talks. Moscow has focused much of its influence operations on Africa and the Middle East, the official said.
The United States and the EU have not sanctioned any Russian agricultural products and say there is no link between the sanctions imposed on Moscow and grain or fertilizer exports from Russia or Ukraine.
That hasn’t stopped Russian embassy officials across Africa from blaming the West for the crisis. Among recent examples, the Russian Ambassador to Djibouti issued a chart on Twitter accusing the EU of lying about gas and food shortages, while a Russian diplomat in South Africa wrote an op-ed in the Mail & Guardian newspaper titled “Russian Embassy rejects accusation of” provocation of world famine “propagated by Western propaganda”.
According to Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that analyzes online misinformation. Online conspiracy communities in South Africa have also been targeted, he said.
UN World Food Program chief David Beasley said Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports was a “declaration of war” on global food security, with 49 million people in 43 countries facing starvation.
“Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the price of food and fuel has risen dramatically in countries around the world,” he said on June 24. “Now millions of people could starve to death.”
Global food prices hit a record high after the Russian invasion on February 24 disrupted grain and vegetable oil exports through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, adding to cost pressures from logistical problems and to a rebound in consumer demand following the coronavirus pandemic. This has exacerbated a hunger crisis affecting countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
With Ukraine and its US and European allies accusing Russia of blocking exports and Moscow pointing the finger at Kyiv, UN-sponsored talks have so far failed to yield a compromise to resume deliveries.
Before the war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for three-quarters of global sunflower oil exports, about 30% of wheat and 15% of corn, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Grain shortages have pushed up prices, with global benchmarks for wheat and maize rising 22% and 12% respectively this year.
“The crisis is caused by Russia. Without this invasion, we would not be in the situation we find ourselves in,” said Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the South African Chamber of Agricultural Affairs. “The price shock is inevitable and directly related to the war.”
Food costs account for 40% of consumer spending in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 17% in advanced economies.
In 2020, Africa imported $4 billion in agricultural products from Russia, 90% of which was wheat, while $2.9 billion worth of wheat, maize, sunflower oil, barley and soybeans came from Ukraine, according to Sihlobo. FAO data shows that Eritrea and Somalia relied almost entirely on Russia and Ukraine for their wheat supplies last year, while Tanzania, Namibia and Madagascar relied on them for more than 60 % of their supplies.
Russian and Ukrainian harvests and exports have surged over the past decade and farmers in the region generally produce at lower costs than more traditional suppliers like Canada and the United States, which has helped to maintain lower wheat prices. Their proximity to North Africa also reduces shipping costs compared to suppliers further afield.
Part of Russia’s propaganda effort has been to amplify statements by African officials that can be seen as supporting Russia’s argument. After African Union Chairman Macky Sall met Putin for talks June 3 in the resort town of Sochi, Sall said sanctions had exacerbated the food crisis.
“Anti-Russian sanctions have made this situation worse and now we don’t have access to grain from Russia, mainly wheat,” Sall said. “And, more importantly, we don’t have access to fertilizer. The situation was bad and now it has gotten worse, creating a threat to food security in Africa.
Russia can draw on its historic role of supporting liberation movements in parts of Africa during wars and struggles against colonial and white-only rule – support that has helped the former Union to undermine the United States and Europe as part of its Cold War strategy to gain influence in Africa. On the other hand, the United Kingdom and France, as former colonial powers, still arouse mistrust.
“What we’ve seen are stories focused very specifically on how the United States is orchestrating this conflict with NATO in order to starve the world,” Ayad said. “Colonialism must be considered along with African disinformation. This is what the Kremlin is counting on: calling on the Western states rather than the Kremlin as an imperial force.
The danger is “very great” that Putin will try to establish a narrative that the West is responsible for the famine threatening Africa, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Strasse said on June 3. . “It’s a narrative that we strongly want to resist,” she said. said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last week at the Group of Seven leaders’ summit in the Bavarian Alps that he would announce measures in September to step up the “fight against disinformation”. At a press conference, he called “fake news” Russia’s efforts to link the food crisis to sanctions.
The Russian propaganda campaign is also getting under the skin of Americans.
“Attempts by the Russian government to deflect responsibility for its actions by blaming others for the worsening crisis in the global food system are reprehensible,” the US State Department said in a June 22 statement titled “Lying to the world about global food security.’
“The Russian government should Stop weaponizing food and allow Ukraine to ship its grain safely so that millions of hungry people in the Middle East and Africa can be fed.
-With help from Matthew Hill, Olivia Solon, Daniel Zuidijk, Katarina Hoije, Fasika Tadesse, Amy Thomson, Helen Nyambura and Samy Adghirni.
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