South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – who is in Russia as part of a peace-seeking delegation – told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that the war in Ukraine must stop.
Ramaphosa laid out the 10 points of the African peace initiative that is seeking agreement on a series of “confidence-building measures” – even as Ukraine last week began a counteroffensive to push back Russian forces.
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“This war has to have an end… It must be settled through negotiations and through diplomatic means,” said Ramaphosa in St Petersburg on Saturday at the 18th-century Konstantinovsky Palace.
He added his delegation, consisting of seven African leaders, “came with a very clear message: that this war has to be ended”.
“This war is having a negative impact on the African continent and indeed, on many other countries around the world,” Ramaphosa said.
Putin interrupted opening remarks by African leaders seeking to mediate in the Ukraine conflict to deliver a list of reasons why he believed many of their proposals were misguided.
He reiterated his position that Ukraine and the West had started the conflict long before Russia sent its armed forces over the border in February last year. He said Russia had never refused talks with the Ukrainian side, which had been blocked by Kyiv.
The group also includes leaders from Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Zambia, Uganda and Comoros. On Friday, the delegation held talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s leader said after meeting the leaders that peace talks with Russia would be possible only after Moscow withdrew its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory.
“We have come to listen to you and through you to hear the voice of the Russian people,” said Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who currently heads the African Union, told Putin. “We wanted to encourage you to enter into negotiations with Ukraine.”
African countries have been divided over their response to the conflict, with some siding with Ukraine, while others have remained neutral or gravitated towards Moscow.
During their meeting with Zelenskyy, the Ukraine president requested the African leaders push Putin to release political prisoners as a confidence-building measure.
Putin, 70, on Saturday, praised the “balanced approach” of African countries towards the Ukraine conflict.
“We welcome the balanced approach of African friends to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin told the visiting leaders. “We’re open to constructive dialogue with all those who want peace based on the principles of respect for each other’s interests, as well as justice.”
The Russian leader also said exports of Ukrainian grain under a deal ensuring its safe passage through the Black Sea was not helping to resolve Africa’s problems with high global food prices – as only 3 percent has gone to the poorest countries.
Putin said the food crisis had been caused by the actions of Western countries, not by what Russia calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday that there appeared to be “no chance” of extending the deal permitting Ukraine to export grain safely across the Black Sea through Russian-controlled waters.
“It’s hardly possible to predict any final decision here, but I can say that, judging de facto by the status quo that we have, this deal has no chance,” Peskov told the Russian news outlet Izvestia.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem, reporting from Moscow, said while many were sceptical the peace mission could lead to a breakthrough between Russia and Ukraine, some argue the experience African leaders have from internal and regional conflicts may be able to come up with an “out of the box solution”.
“However, this crisis is multilayered and intertwined … and that’s why its so complicated. The Americans, Europeans, the Chinese … everyone is trying to have their own say on it, and it doesn’t seem it’s going to be solved anytime soon.”