JOHANNESBURG — Ships, sailors and soldiers from Russia and China have begun arriving in South Africa for joint military drills that feature a Russian warship bearing the letters Z and V — Russia’s patriotic symbols for its war in Ukraine — and carrying what Russia boasts is a hypersonic missile.
At a time when many countries have cut ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, South Africa has leaned into its longtime alliance with Moscow — leaving officials in the United States and Europe sputtering in outrage.
South Africa’s leaders have made no apologies. The friendship between South Africa and Russia dates to the struggle against apartheid. In recent months, another Russian ship, the Lady R, a tanker under American sanctions, enjoyed a warm welcome to South African shores. And Russia’s foreign minister joked and smiled with his South African counterpart at a news conference.
“I’m really proud that we enjoy excellent diplomatic relations with your country, which we regard as a valued partner,” Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, said during the meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Pretoria last month.
The recent show of support from South Africa, the most developed economy and an influential voice on the African continent, has provided crucial backing for Russia as its invasion of Ukraine has made it a pariah elsewhere.
South Africa gets a superpower ally that can help it inflate its global influence. And South African officials also see an opportunity to help their nation’s beleaguered economy by increasing trade with Russia, just as Moscow is seeking friendly nations to do business with to bypass American and European sanctions.
Mzuvukile Maqetuka, the South African ambassador to Russia, told Russia’s state-run news outlet Sputnik that the countries were discussing increasing investments in oil and hydroelectric power, and starting direct commercial flights from Moscow to Cape Town.
The two countries have had warm relations for 30 years because the Soviets backed the African National Congress, or A.N.C. — now the governing party — in the fight against apartheid.
But U.S. officials have raised an alarm, accusing South African officials of providing material support to Russia’s war effort by allowing the sanctioned vessel, the Lady R, to dock. They have warned South Africa against helping Russia evade sanctions. The U.S. has a range of penalties at its disposal, from rolling back aid funding or trade privileges to imposing sanctions.
The European Union, South Africa’s largest trading partner, is also worried that South Africa is “moving further away from a nonaligned position,” Peter Stano, an E.U. spokesman, said in a statement.
South Africa denies aiding Russia’s war. But the scrutiny underscores the tricky diplomatic dance of a midsize nation trying to cozy up to multiple superpowers, without alienating any of them. In one week last month, the South African government hosted the U.S. treasury secretary, the Russian foreign minister and ministers from the European Union.
“We’re not choosing one side at the expense of the other,” said Clayson Monyela, the head of public diplomacy for South Africa’s foreign ministry. “Both are important.”
The extent that South Africa shifts toward Russia is a test of Russian president Vladimir V. Putin’s strategy to style himself as a leader of a global coalition of countries pushing back against Western dominance.
Mr. Lavrov has already visited seven African countries this year. He cast Russia as an ally for African countries to resist Western “attempts to falsify history, to erase the memory of the horrible crimes of the colonizers, including genocide.”
Vadim Zaytsev, an expert on Russia’s Africa policy, wrote on Tuesday that he saw a well-worn three-part strategy in Mr. Lavrov’s pitch: exports of arms and technology; economic cooperation outside Western channels; and programs promoting Russian-language education and humanitarian projects.
When the invasion began on Feb. 24 last year, Ms. Pandor’s ministry initially released a statement calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. But South Africa has since walked back that stance.
South Africa was one of 35 nations — 19 from Africa — to abstain in a United Nations vote last October to condemn Russia’s planned referendums in territory that Russia had claimed to have taken over in eastern Ukraine. Ms. Pandor, in her news conference with Mr. Lavrov, suggested that Ukraine was actually a threat to Russia because of all the arms it had received from the West.
South African government officials insist that South Africa is officially “nonaligned” in keeping with the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of mostly small to midsize nations that came together during the Cold War.
But a U.S. official in South Africa said the American government believed that munitions and rocket propellant that Russia could use in the Ukraine war may have been loaded onto the Russian tanker, the Lady R, while it was docked in South Africa. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, declined to provide evidence, but said the U.S. was considering whether to take action against South Africa.
Mr. Monyela of South Africa’s foreign ministry called the allegation false.
“Anybody that makes that claim would have to produce evidence because it’s very easy to allege that something has happened and would be very dangerous,” he said.
South Africa and Russia are already partners in BRICS, an alliance they share with Brazil, India and China. The bloc, founded in 2001, has positioned itself as a competitor to western-dominated alliances like the G7 and a voice for the interests of smaller and developing nations.
“You’ve got leaders that are now listening to the African people,” rather than dictating what they should do, said Lindiwe Zulu, the chairwoman of international relations for the A.N.C. “It’s what we feel when we are in these BRICS meetings. We feel like we are partners in something that is not being imposed on us.”
In raw dollars, South Africa’s economic relationship with Russia is dwarfed by its trade with either the European Union, China or the United States. But South Africa’s bond with Russia is deeply emotional.
During the fight against apartheid, the Soviet Union provided money, military training and other support to the African National Congress, the liberation movement turned ruling party. The United States government, on the other hand, labeled the A.N.C. a terrorist organization and did not officially support sanctions against the apartheid regime until 1986, only a few years before apartheid finally fell.
When Western countries slam Russia for invading Ukraine, South African officials don’t hesitate to bring up Europe’s colonial conquests in Africa, and America’s invasions of countries including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Many of the European countries have not even apologized for what they’ve done to Africa,” said Khulekani Skosana, the national chairman of international relations for the A.N.C. Youth League. “Some of them still continue to see us as subhuman.”
Mr. Skosana has firmly thrown his weight behind the Kremlin. He traveled to Eastern Ukraine last year to act as an observer for Russia’s widely condemned referendums and has likened the government of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to the apartheid regime.
One factor that might endear the governments of South Africa and other countries on the continent to Russia is Moscow’s hands-off approach, compared to the United States, which often requires democratic reforms as conditions for aid and trade, said Lauren Hess, a Washington-based foreign policy analyst from South Africa.
“People experience it as the U.S. dictating to South Africa,” Ms. Hess said.
The affinity of South Africa’s government and political leaders toward Russia may be out of step with the views of the population as a whole. Recent polls suggested that South Africans would rather live in western countries than in Russia, and that they viewed the United States’ influence on their country more positively than Russia’s. An analysis last year of Twitter posts in 13 African countries, including South Africa, showed mostly indifferent or negative attitudes toward Russia, according to the South African Institute of International Studies.
Critics within South Africa accuse government leaders of being caught up in nostalgia. They argue that the Kremlin is using South Africa as a pawn in an international public relations exercise to sanitize Russia’s image.
After the Russian consulate posted a photo on Twitter of a warship along the shores of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor and a member of South Africa’s main opposition party, replied, “Cape Town will not be complicit in Russia’s evil war.”
Detractors also refute the narrative that Russia and Mr. Putin have pure intentions in Africa, pointing out that Russia sells arms to African countries, has taken over mining interests throughout the continent, and deployed mercenaries, primarily with the Wagner Group, a security company run by a Putin ally, in several countries.
“Nothing about Moscow’s engagement in Africa inspires confidence,” Lindiwe Mazibuko, a former leader in the Democratic Alliance, wrote in an opinion piece in The Sunday Times. “And the autocratic ambitions of Vladimir Putin are certainly not a policy hill any African country should be willing to die on.”
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg and Anton Troianovski from Berlin.