CAIRO – Russia's top diplomat was in Cairo for talks Sunday with Egyptian officials as his country seeks to break the diplomatic isolation and sanctions by the West over its invasion of Ukraine.
Sergey Lavrov landed in Cairo late on Saturday, the first leg of his Africa trip that will also include stops in Ethiopia, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Russia’s state-run RT television network.
On Sunday, he first held talks with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, then his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shukry. Lavrov also met with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, before addressing the pan-Arab organization, the Arab League said.
In a joint news conference with Shukry, Lavrov said he discussed Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine with Egyptian officials who urged for “a political and diplomatic” settlement to the conflict.
Lavrov laid the blame on Ukraine for the rupture of earlier peace talks.
“We do not have any prejudices about resuming negotiations on a wider range of issues, but the matter does not depend on us,” he said. “Ukrainian authorities, from the president to his innumerable advisers, constantly say that there will be no negotiations until Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield.”
The Russian diplomat used his speech at the Arab League to press the Kremlin's narrative that the West pushed his country to invade Ukraine and accused the West of ignoring Russia's security concerns stemming from NATO’s expansion eastward.
Following Russia's airstrike Saturday on the port of Odesa, Ukraine, it was not immediately clear how plans to resume shipping Ukrainian grain by sea in safe corridors out of Ukrainian Black Sea ports would be affected.
Lavrov said in Cairo that Russian grain exporters are committed to fulfilling their obligations in the wake of twin U.N.-backed deals signed by Moscow and Kyiv to unblock the grain shipments from Ukrainian ports.
“We discussed the specific parameters of cooperation in this area, agreed on further contacts between the relevant ministries, and we have a common understanding of the causes of the grain crisis,” he said, without elaborating.
Russia's war in Ukraine has had dire effects on the world economy, driving up oil and gas prices to unprecedented levels. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but Russia’s invasion and naval blockade of its ports have halted shipments.
Some Ukrainian grain is transported through Europe by rail, road and river, but with higher transportation costs. The war has also disrupted shipments of Russian products because shipping and insurance companies are reluctant to deal with Western sanctions on Russia.
African countries are among those most affected by ripples of the war. The prices of vital commodities skyrocketed and billions of dollars in aid have been directed to help those who fled the war in Europe. That has left millions of people in conflict areas in Africa and the Middle East suffering from worsening growing shortages in food and other assistance.
In an article posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website, Lavrov rejected the West's accusations that Russia is responsible for the global food crisis, as “another attempt to shift the blame to others.”
Seeking to rally African nations on his country’s side, he hailed what he called “an independent path” they took in refraining from joining the West in sanctioning Russia and the “undisguised attempts of the U.S. and their European satellites to gain the upper hand, and to impose a unipolar world order to the international community.”
The article was also published in four African newspapers.
At the Cairo news conference, Lavrov also said a second Russia-Africa summit will be held in mid-2023 as part of Moscow’s efforts to expand Russia’s clout in this part of the world. The first summit was held in 2019 the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Lavrov's visit comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden's Mideast trip. Biden visited Israel and also the occupied West Bank before heading to Saudi Arabia. He also attended a regional summit of Gulf Arab countries and also Egypt, Jordan and Iraq in Saudi Arabia.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has refused to take sides on Russia's war in Ukraine as it maintains close ties with both Moscow and the West. Egypt is also among the world’s largest importers of wheat, mainly from Russia and Ukraine.
El-Sissi completed a three-day visit to Serbia last week, the first in more than 30 years by an Egyptian president. Serbia has also abstained from joining Western sanctions against Russia and has maintained friendly relations with Moscow despite the war. The Egyptian leader also visited Germany and France last week.
Russia and Egypt have strengthened their ties considerably in recent years as el-Sissi and Russian President Vladimir Putin developed a close personal rapport, which helped increase military and economic cooperation.
Also last week, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, began construction of a four-reactor power plant it is building in Egypt.