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Russian Warship Drills with South African, Chinese Navies Amid Criticism

Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is seen in the Atlantic Ocean en route to Durban where it is scheduled to do naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies, in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 15, 2023.
Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is seen in the Atlantic Ocean en route to Durban where it is scheduled to do naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies, in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 15, 2023.

Joint naval exercises including South Africa, Russia, and China get underway in waters off South Africa's east coast Friday, despite U.S. concerns and Ukrainian condemnation. Critics say the 10-day military drills will do little to benefit South Africa and act as a propaganda boost for Moscow on the one-year anniversary of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

While the West is upping its arms shipments to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion, South Africa begins wargames today with Russian warships that proudly support the offensive.

Russia’s “Admiral Gorshkov,” which arrived in Cape Town this week, is marked with the Kremlin’s pro-war symbol, the letter 'Z.'

Critics say the optics of South African servicemen aboard the frigate near the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion would be a coup for Moscow and a shame to the country of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

Ukrainian Ambassador to South Africa Liubov Abravitova told VOA she condemns the drills.

“It is very disturbing that South Africa will be hosting the military exercise with the country, aggressor, invader, that is using its military force against peaceful country, bringing destruction and trying to eliminate Ukrainian nation," Abravitova said.

South Africa has repeatedly defended its neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine and its right to relations with Russia, a fellow member of the BRICS trade bloc with Brazil, India, and China.

South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, last month welcomed her visiting Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov and said Pretoria wouldn’t be bullied into choosing sides.

The opposition Democratic Alliance though, says Pretoria's hosting the drills shows it has dropped any pretense at neutrality.

Democratic Alliance shadow defense minister Kobus Marais adds the drills, called Mosi II, won’t benefit South Africa’s depleted navy and the funds would be better spent elsewhere.

“Given our very limited naval capabilities, resources and other higher priorities, we can gain little or no value from Exercise Mosi II, especially from the presence and possible launch of the hypersonic missile," Marais said.

The Gorshkov is equipped with hypersonic Zircon missiles, which Russian state media report could be fired in a training launch during the drills.

South African officials have denied the missile launch will be part of the 10 days of exercises, which also include China’s navy.

South Africa’s Defense Department said this is not the first war game with Russia and that it previously joined military drills with its Western allies as well.

However, South Africa this year declined an invitation to join U.S.-led multinational maritime drills in the Gulf of Guinea.

South African Institute of International Affairs Russia expert Steven Gruzd says Pretoria is trying to straddle both sides.

“South Africa does see a future in which Russia and China are both very, very important partners, but it’s still also trying to balance its relations with Western states," said Gruzd. "There may be some fallout, we’re not sure of what kind, but the U.S. is certainly not happy at all that South Africa is taking part in these exercises.”

Asked to comment on the drills, the U.S. State Department told VOA by email it noted them with concern “even as Moscow continues its brutal and unlawful invasion of Ukraine.”

The statement went on to say, “We encourage South Africa to cooperate militarily with fellow democracies that share our mutual commitment to human rights and the rule of law.”

Since Russia’s invasion last February, U.S. officials estimate tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed along with as many as a hundred thousand troops or more on each side.

The Russian Embassy in South Africa and South Africa’s Defense Ministry did not reply to requests for comment.