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African leaders head for ill-starred peace mission in Ukraine

Four presidents and three representatives are due to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.
The mission comes as South Africa is looking to burnish its international credentials
AFP | Phill Magakoe

KYIV - African leaders are expected in Ukraine on Friday in a self-professed bid to broker peace between Kyiv and Moscow, despite three presidents dropping out and Ukraine's counteroffensive overshadowing the mission.

Four presidents and three representatives are due to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv before heading to Saint Petersburg on Saturday to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

"It is at times of escalated conflict that a search for peace must be equally accelerated," South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.

The high-profile diplomatic team hopes to bring to the table the voice of a continent that has been badly hit by rising grain prices and the wider impact on global trade since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. 

"We are keen to engage with them... to see whether there is a space to come up with joint efforts that would bring peace in Ukraine closer," Ukraine's foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said in a statement.

Yet the initiative, the latest in a flurry of so-far unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed, does not kick off under the best auspices.

Moscow has intensified its nightly attacks on major Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, while Kyiv has launched a major counteroffensive to reclaim Russian-occupied territory.

"The conditions for peaceful and constructive discussions are no longer there," a Congolese diplomatic source told AFP on Wednesday.

Three leaders -- Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Congo-Brazzaville's President Denis Sassou Nguesso -- have pulled out of the trip.

They will be sending an ex-premier, the current prime minister and the head of their office respectively in their stead. 

Museveni said he could not attend after contracting Covid-19.

The diplomatic source lamented that the absence of al-Sisi, "a heavyweight on the African scene", was "likely to weaken the scope" of the initiative.

Only three of the original mission members -- Ramaphosa, Senegal's Macky Sall and Zambia's Hakainde Hichilema, plus Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who currently heads the African Union -- will be heading to Kyiv by train from Poland on Friday.

 'Come and go' 

The mission comes as South Africa is looking to burnish its international credentials days after the White House voiced concern about its relationship with Russia, following lawmakers' call for Pretoria to be expelled from a trade pact with the US.

African countries have been divided over their response to the war, with some siding with Ukraine, while others have remained neutral or gravitated towards Moscow. 

The African mission's chances to secure a proper peace look incredibly thin, with both Kyiv and Moscow convinced they can win on the battlefield, analysts say.

Nikolenko said territorial concessions by Ukraine were not on the table.

"They will not be able to offer us anything in terms of conflict resolution," Ukrainian political analyst Anatoliy Oktysiuk said of the African leaders.

"They cannot play the role of mediators. They have little political weight, they do not influence anything."

Still, analysts said the mediating effort could hope to win some concessions from the Kremlin ahead of a Russia-Africa summit next month. 

Securing the future viability of a deal allowing grain from Ukraine to reach the global market -- an agreement Moscow has threatened to quit -- would be one goal. 

Prisoner swaps and fertiliser exports will also likely be on the agenda in Moscow, other analysts have suggested.

"This is theatre," Jeremy Seekings, professor at the University of Cape Town, said of the peace effort. 

Ramaphosa "really needs something to restore his credibility. And he's clutching at straws, because this is a very long shot."

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