PRETORIA, South Africa – Jan. 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) during his official visit to Pretoria
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Russia and South Africa pledged this week to strengthen bilateral ties and will begin a joint military exercise next month to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pretoria as part of an African tour, his second since the invasion, which will also reportedly take him to Botswana, Angola and Eswatini.
Diplomatic analysts told CNBC that the tour primarily represented an assertion of Russia’s “non-isolation,” projecting a message that despite Western sanctions and efforts to ban it from the world stage, key strategic alliances remain in force.
On February 24, 2022, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, South Africa urged Russia to immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Since then, however, the tone has changed. South Africa was one of 15 African countries to abstain from the subsequent UN vote in March to condemn Russia’s offensive war.
At a joint press conference with Lavrov on Monday, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said it would have been “simplistic and infantile” to demand Russia’s withdrawal during their meeting. powers to support Ukraine’s military efforts.
Pandor also praised the “growing economic bilateral relationship” between Pretoria and Moscow, along with “political, economic, social, defense and security cooperation”.
She emphasized the multilateral responsibilities of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc of leading emerging economies in a changing global landscape.
South Africa will host the BRICS this year, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has suggested that Pretoria could use the presidency to push for the admission of new members to expand the bloc’s presence and to challenge the dominance of global superpowers.
“Current global geopolitical tensions clearly indicate the need to create institutional mechanisms that have the stature and global trust to promote and support global peace and security,” Pandor said.
Although she called for the war to be “peacefully brought to an end through diplomacy and negotiations”, there was no direct condemnation of the invasion.
Timing of joint naval exercises ‘may be intentional’
South Africa is hosting a joint naval exercise with Russia and China between February 17 and 27, and Pandor responded to the concerns by stating that hosting such operations with “friends” was part of the “natural course of relations”. idea that only certain countries are acceptable partners.
Steven Gruzd, head of the South African Institute of International Affairs’ African Governance and Diplomacy Program, told CNBC on Tuesday that the timing of the joint exercise, dubbed “Mosi,” which means “Rook” in the Tswana language, was “internationally would draw attention.” and expressed suspicion that it “could be intentional.”
“You can, of course, choose the timing of these things and have chosen the timing that it would be right on the birthday, maybe South Africa’s way of saying is, ‘Look, we are a sovereign independent country and we will make our foreign policy the way that we see fit, and the way that furthers our interests, and we shall not be told and scalded by anyone’.
South Africa is under pressure from Western partners to join the opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, and has vehemently refused to be “bullied”, in Pandor’s words, into taking sides.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that “the United States is concerned about any country exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine.”
Central to Russia’s appeal to many African countries, analysts emphasized, is its ability to promote itself as an anti-imperialist resistance, playing on the resentment of the likes of the US, UK and France over the history of Western oppression on the continent.
Eleonora Tafuro, a senior research fellow at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Center of Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told CNBC on Tuesday that despite its low trade relationship with the African continent compared to that of the European Union, has been able to capitalize on “anti-imperialist sentiments” and perceived “patronizing attitudes” from the West.
Building on ‘anti-colonial’ sentiments
In her opening speech on Monday, Pandor pointed to the support of the Russian Federation 30 years ago – then as part of the Soviet Union – to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that would later form the basis of the ANC.
“It is ironic that this particular element plays out to the ends of the Kremlin to justify this war of aggression against Ukraine,” Tafuro said, noting that there was a lack of empathy among African states towards Ukrainians as co-victims of imperialism.
“I think Russia very skillfully uses information and propaganda to build this story, but this story is successful because there is already a deep culture of anti-Western sentiment in countries like South Africa, and this has to do with their own history of are. victims of imperialism.”
Russia’s growing influence has been evident in recent weeks during protests in Burkina Faso, with protesters condemning France and the regional bloc ECOWAS as they wave Russian flags.
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Jan 20. 2023: A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support Burkina Faso’s President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of the French ambassador and armed forces.
OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images
“There is no question that there is growing dissatisfaction with France in its former playgrounds and Russia thrives on chaos, and its institutions fill the gap as France retreats,” Gruzd stressed.
He also noted that Russian social media operations, along with promoting pro-Kremlin messages, also built on “existing fault lines, such as anti-French sentiment or anti-gay sentiment” and rivalries between political blocs.
“Countries like South Africa have really adopted the Russian narrative that it’s an anti-colonial power, that it supports the little man, that it’s not good for the world to have one superpower and that superpower has the US. Multipolarity, that there must be alternative energy sources and power distribution,’ explains Gruzd.
“That resonates, and it resonates strongly and it resonates strongly with countries that have also been marginalized by the West.”
African nations are not ‘area for great powers to compete’
In the past month, Lavrov, new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all embarked on African tours, and Yellen will meet South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also visited the continent last year, while US President Joe Biden held a US-Africa summit in December, seen as an attempt to regain some of the influence that Washington has lost. to China in the past decade or more.
Both Tafuro and Gruzd noted that the flurry of diplomatic activity should not be seen as a “battle for Africa” as the continent’s bargaining position now puts it firmly at the table.
“I think from an African point of view, we prefer to be classified not just as a field in which great powers can compete, but a recognition that African governments and African societies operate in their own right, so they are not a pawn in anyone’s game, they are players who sitting around the board,” Gruzd said.
GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – Jan 21. 2023: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (R) receives Goree’s Great Pilgrim diploma from attorney and Goree’s Mayor Augustin Senghor (L) while visiting Goree Island off the coast of the city of Dakar on January 21, 2023.
SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images
Tafuro also argued that comparisons to the Cold War or simplifying diplomatic visits to competition for resources misses the major paradigm shift currently underway.
“Sometimes we just forget that these African countries have their own agency and in the end it is up to them to decide whether the relationship with China, Turkey or Russia is worth it and whether it is beneficial for them to maintain a balanced approach, for example , like doing business with anyone who wants to do business,” she said.
“It’s also up to them to shape their relationship with these outside players.”