JOHANNESBURG -- Russian President Vladimir Putin took multiple shots at the West on the opening day of an economic summit in South Africa, using a prerecorded speech that was aired on giant screens Tuesday to rail at what he called “illegitimate sanctions” on his country and threaten to cut off Ukraine's grain exports permanently.
Putin, the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant related to the war in Ukraine, did not travel to Johannesburg for the summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies. Instead, he plans to participate remotely in the three-day meeting of the bloc that encompasses Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
His 17-minute speech recorded in advance centered on the war in Ukraine and Russia's relationship with the West — even though South African officials had said East-West frictions should not dominate the first in-person BRICS summit since before the COVID-19 pandemic and hoped to guide the conversation away from the deteriorating geopolitical climate.
Sitting at a desk with a white notebook in front of him and a Russian flag behind, Putin said a wartime deal to facilitate Ukrainian grain shipments that is critical for the world’s food supply would not resume until his conditions — the easing of restrictions on Russian food and agricultural products — are met.
The West’s attempts to punish and isolate Russia financially for sending troops into Ukraine are an “illegitimate sanctions practice and illegal freezing of assets of sovereign states, which essentially amounts to them trampling upon all the basic norms and rules of free trade,” the Russian leader asserted.
Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July and stepped up drone and missile attacks on the city of Odesa in southern Ukraine, home to one of the ports the controlled passage agreement covered.
The initiative was credited with helping reduce soaring prices of wheat, vegetable oil and other global food commodities. Putin maintained that even with Russian exports of grain and fertilizer being “deliberately obstructed,” his country has “the capacity to replace Ukraine in grain, both commercially and in free aid to needy countries,” according to an official translation of his speech at the summit.
The United States and other Western nations have not directly targeted Russian agricultural exports, but moves to restrict Russia’s access to international financial payment systems under some sanctions have made it difficult for the country to get food, fertilizer and other products to market.
“With these facts in mind, since July 18 we have refused to extend the so-called deal,” Putin said. “We will be ready to get back to it, but only if all the obligations to the Russian side are truly fulfilled.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping also brought an air of confrontation to the Johannesburg summit, saying in a speech read on his behalf by a Chinese government minister minutes after Putin's address that “some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries.”
“Whoever is developing fast becomes its target of containment. Whoever is catching up, becomes its target of obstructions,” Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said while delivering Xi's speech.
It was a clear reference to the United States and the growing economic friction between the U.S. and China.
Xi is in South Africa for the summit and met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier Tuesday. He didn’t attend the opening-day business forum where the other three BRICS leaders gave their addresses in person and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov represented his country. No reason was given for the Chinese leader’s absence.
However, Xi, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ramaphosa were all expected to meet over dinner at a luxury estate in suburban Johannesburg. Putin also planned to take part virtually, officials said.
The leaders were expected to discuss the top agenda point for the three-day summit, a possible expansion of BRICS. They are scheduled to reconvene for the summit's main day of talks on Wednesday.
The five BRICS countries are already home to 40% of the world’s population and responsible for more than 30% of global economic output, and more than 20 nations have applied to join, according to South African officials, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi planned to attend the summit.
The five current member countries will have to agree on the criteria for new members before any countries are admitted, but a bigger BRICS is seen as a policy favored by China and Russia amid those deteriorating relations with the West.
Brazil, Russia, India and China formed the bloc in 2009. South Africa was added in 2010.
“I am glad to note that over 20 countries are knocking on the door of BRICS. China hopes to see more joining the BRICS cooperation mechanism," Wang said while giving Xi's speech.
Overall, around 1,200 delegates from the five BRICS nations and dozens of other developing countries are in South Africa's biggest city, and more than 40 heads of state were expected to take part in some of the summit meetings, according to Ramaphosa.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also was expected to attend.
While summit host South Africa has pushed back at characterizations that BRICS is taking more of an anti-West turn under Russian and Chinese influence, it's clearly a forum for growing discontent in the developing world with global institutions.
That unhappiness has been directed at bodies seen as Western-led, including the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which many countries in the Global South feel do not serve their interests.
While in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, earlier Tuesday for his meeting with Xi, Ramaphosa said he was seeking “Chinese support for South Africa and Africa’s call for the reform of global governance institutions, notably the United Nations Security Council.”
Africa and South America have no permanent representatives on the Security Council despite being home to nearly 2 billion people.
The U.S. and EU will be closely monitoring events in Johannesburg, with the long list of countries lining up to join BRICS suggesting that the bloc's calls for a reorganization of the global governance structure might be hitting home with many.
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