South Africa to Hold Naval Drill With Russia and China Amid Ukraine War

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s military announced on Thursday that it plans to hold joint training exercises off its coast next month with Russia and China, a move criticized by the United States, which has been trying to rally other countries to isolate Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The exercises will coincide with the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24. South Africa was among three dozen countries that abstained last year in a vote in the United Nations to condemn Russia for its claim to have annexed several regions of Ukraine.

South Africa has conducted military exercises with Russia and China before, as well as with the United States and NATO countries. The South African National Defense Force said that the upcoming drills, to be held from Feb. 17 to 27 near the coastal towns of Durban and Richards Bay, are a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

The United States, which has fostered a decades-long strategic partnership with South Africa, immediately expressed disapproval. David Feldmann, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, said in a statement, “We note with concern” the plan by South Africa to move ahead with the joint exercises “even as Moscow continues its brutal and unlawful invasion of Ukraine.”

He added, “We encourage South Africa to cooperate militarily with fellow democracies that share our mutual commitment to human rights and the rule of law.”

The naval drill is a show of diplomatic independence for South Africa, analysts said. South Africa is part of an alliance with Brazil, Russia, India and China — known by the acronym BRICS — and this naval exercise reasserts South Africa’s position that it will not allow the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to dictate its diplomatic relations.

“It is seen as a war that is happening in Europe, and as far as South Africa is concerned, it’s not part of this war,” said Denys Reva, a maritime researcher with the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa.

Although the European Union is South Africa’s largest trading partner, South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, has held deep historical ties to Russia and China because of the help those countries provided in the fight against apartheid.

Many South Africans who led the efforts to overthrow the apartheid regime studied and received military training in the Soviet Union. China also provided military training to members of the A.N.C., the liberation party that would eventually come to govern South Africa.

For Russia, which has faced international sanctions since starting the war, the joint naval exercise is a welcome display of friendship from a diplomatic partner, several analysts said.

For China, while the stakes are lower, February’s drill will be a reminder that the BRICS alliance is still a global player, said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, head of the South African Institute of International Affairs. BRICS may not be a military alliance like NATO, but it is still presenting itself as a “countervailing force to the West.”

While South Africa’s military is among the most powerful on the African continent, a declining defense budget has eroded its capabilities.

South Africa, China and Russia first held such a naval drill in 2019, running antipiracy drills and rescue exercises. Darren Olivier, director of the African Defense Review, a security consultancy, said that at the time, he and other security experts did not attach much diplomatic significance to the cooperation.

Now, against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, the exercise has taken on “a stronger ideological importance at a political level,” Mr. Olivier said. He added that it would have been more “sensible and pragmatic” if South Africa had postponed the exercise.

But South Africa has also worked with the armed forces of its Western partners. Since 2011, South Africa has conducted joint military drills with the United States four times, most recently last July.

South Africa’s navy has also previously conducted similar exercises with NATO, as well as its member states like France and Germany, said Mr. Reva, the maritime researcher.

The European Union ambassador to South Africa declined to comment on Thursday.

While many South Africans have said they support their country’s refusal to condemn Russia for the war in Ukraine, the military exercises provoked some domestic criticism.

Kobus Marais, a member of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, who serves on Parliament’s joint committee on defense, said that the military exercise will bring little benefit to South Africa’s ailing and underfunded naval fleet. South Africa’s government should have prioritized relations with larger trading partners, like the European Union and the U.S., he said. Instead, it has repeatedly shown favor to Russia.

“Clearly what they are showing now is a lack of neutrality,” Mr. Marais said.

Last month, the Lady R, a Russian container ship that had been sanctioned by the United States, was allowed to dock in South Africa’s naval port outside Cape Town. The ship’s mysterious nighttime arrival raised speculation among South Africans, as well as some concern because a commercial ship under sanctions had been permitted to use a naval facility. Only after the ship departed did South Africa’s defense minister, Thandi Modise, offer an explanation, saying that it had delivered “an old outstanding order for ammunition.”

More than 350 members of various branches of South Africa’s military will participate in the drills, named Exercise MOSI.

The announcement of the exercises comes a few days before Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, is scheduled to visit South Africa for bilateral talks with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor.


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