KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday is set to host a group of African leaders who have traveled to Russia on a self-styled “peace mission” the day after they went to Ukraine.
Seven African leaders — presidents of Comoros, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia, as well as Egypt’s prime minister and top envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda — visited Ukraine on Friday to try to help end the nearly 16-month-old war.
The African leaders then traveled to St. Petersburg Saturday to meet with Putin who is attending a business forum in Russia’s second-largest city.
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.
Asked if he could order the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Putin said that there was no need for that but noted that Moscow could use its nuclear arsenals in case of a “threat to the Russian statehood.”
“In that case, we will certainly use all the means that the Russian state has. There should be no doubt about that,” he said.
The mission to Ukraine, the first of its kind by African leaders, comes in the wake of other peace initiatives — such as one by China — and carries particular importance for Africa, which relies on food and fertilizer deliveries from Russia and Ukraine. The war has impeded exports from one of the world’s most important breadbaskets.
“This conflict is affecting Africa negatively,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at a news conference alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and four other African leaders after their closed-door talks on Friday.
Ramaphosa and others acknowledged the intensity of the hostilities but insisted all wars must come to an end and emphasized their willingness to help expedite that.
“I do believe that Ukrainians feel that they must fight and not give up. The road to peace is very hard,” he said, adding that “there is a need to bring this conflict to an end sooner rather than later.”
The delegation, including Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Presidents Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, represent a cross-section of African views on the war.
South Africa, Senegal and Uganda have avoided censuring Moscow over the conflict, while Egypt, Zambia and Comoros voted against Russia last year in a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion.
Many African nations have long had close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported their anti-colonial struggles.
Speaking during Friday’s news conference, Comoros President Azali Assoumani floated the idea of a “road map” to peace, prompting questions from Zelenskyy who sought a clarification and insisted he didn’t want “any surprises” from their visit with Putin.
Chances for peace talks look dim as Ukraine and Russia take sharply different stands. Ukraine demands that Russia withdraws its troops from all its occupied territories as a condition for peace talks. The Kremlin, in turn, wants Ukraine to recognize Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as part of Russia and acknowledge other land gains it has made.
China presented its own peace proposal at the end of February. Ukraine and its allies largely dismissed the plan, as the warring sides look no closer to a cease-fire.
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.