South Africa and Russia deepen military ties – DW – 01/23/2023

The South African military will hold a joint military exercise with Russia and China on its east coast from February 17-27. The naval exercises will coincide with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

While South Africa has little trade with Moscow, it supports the position that Russia and China have taken in limiting perceived US hegemony on the world stage.

Over the past three decades, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has also been beholden to the Kremlin out of gratitude for the moral and military support given to South Africa’s struggle. against apartheid.

At the same time, South Africa’s professed neutrality has disappointed its Western partners, who see the country as crucial to their plans to strengthen relations with Africa. On Monday, South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor responded to criticism of planned joint military exercises, saying holding such drills with “friends” was the “natural course of relations”.

‘South Africa’s foreign policy must support human rights’

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has offered to mediate in the Ukrainian conflict, insists on the impartiality of his government. The political opposition and many representatives of civil society disagree.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia,” said Darren Bergman, a member of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party.

“South Africa’s position is a bad situation of remaining totally indifferent,” William Gumede, executive chairman of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation, told DW. “It’s a really unconstitutional position to take, because our constitution is very clear that our foreign policy must support human rights,” said the researcher and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Women holding up an image of the Russian President as a Hitler lookalike with the words
Some South Africans have protested their government’s stance on the war in UkraineImage: Alet Pretorius/REUTERS

This is Lavrov’s second African visit in six months. It precedes the Russia-Africa summit, which was postponed to July 2023 last year due to the war with Ukraine.

A South African official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak, said Lavrov would also visit Eswatini, Botswana and Angola on his trip.

Call from Ukraine to support Africa

The Ukrainian Embassy in Pretoria has asked the South African government to help approve the 10-point peace plan that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proposed to the G20 last November.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly tried to strengthen Ukraine’s ties with Africa, with little success so far. Most African nations have been reluctant to take sides, as was made clear during the United Nations General Assembly’s vote on suspending Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council last April. when only 10 of the 54 African nations voted in favour. Nine opposed the resolution and 35 abstained or were absent.

A month earlier, only 28 African countries backed a UN resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Russia is currently the largest arms exporter to the African continent. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s annual review, arms exports to Africa accounted for 18% of all Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020.

In January 2022, hundreds of Russian military advisers were deployed to Mali. According to the Malian army, contractors from the controversial Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group have been asked to “help Mali train its security forces”.

Mali’s southern neighbor, Burkina Faso, witnessed a coup last January, followed by a second coup in September. Like its Malian counterparts, the Burkinabé military has defied calls to hand over power to a civilian government. She, too, turned to Moscow.

Chinese and South African navy warships and personnel in Cape Town in 2019
The last joint military exercise with Russia and China took place in Cape Town in 2019Image: Chen Cheng/Photoshot/picture alliance

Russia wants to act as ‘defender of Africa’

Sudan, Chad, Guinea and Guinea Bissau have also experienced coups in recent years. Most of the soldiers behind each of these coups had received Russian-sponsored military training.

According to Irina Filatova of the Moscow Higher School of Economics, Russia aims to establish itself on the continent as a security broker in order to “confront the collective West” and project the image of a “defender of Africa”.

After the end of World War II and well into the 1970s, the Kremlin supported liberation movements across the continent. At the time, Russia’s main export was light to medium range weapons and ammunition.

Many hailed Moscow’s growing influence on the continent. “Without the Soviet Union’s firm stance during the Cold War and the height of the anti-colonial struggle, many of our countries would never have seen the light of independence,” said Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy governor of the central bank of Nigeria. told DW in 2019.

That support waned after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But over the past two decades, Russian leaders have tried to rekindle those independence-era ties.

Vladimir Putin and Cyril Ramaphosa talk to each other in private
President Vladimir Putin, left, and his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, met in 2019 at the first-ever Russia-Africa summit in SochiImage: SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP

Russia has officially remained silent on its policy with Africa. But, according to Filatova, Moscow relies on private military companies like the Wagner Group to act as “door openers.”

“Officially, [the military groups] are not integrated into the strategy at all. But what we see is that they always come first when there is some instability, and then they help secure those in power who have established relations with Russia,” she told DW.

African countries have asked for help from Russia

The first arms deal made public was the sale of a Russian-made assault ship to an unnamed sub-Saharan African country. The supplier, Rosoboronexport – Russia’s only state-owned arms supplier – confirmed the deal in April 2020.

A few months earlier, in 2019, the first-ever Russia-Africa Economic Forum was held in Sochi, attended by many big names in African politics. Russia took the opportunity to boast about its track record in Africa. By then he had made a name for himself as an ally of several nations as they fought protracted insurgencies.

In 2018, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania appealed to Moscow for help in fighting the so-called “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda.

Beyond military services, Moscow has also carved out a niche for itself by selling nuclear technology to developing countries. Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt and Nigeria are among those in the market for Russian-built nuclear power plants.

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Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

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