South Africa’s foreign minister averted condemnation of joint military drills with Russia and China on Monday, and defended the planned exercise by saying that carrying out such exercises with “friends” was the “natural course of relations.”
Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor gave the statement in a meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who was invited to South Africa for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine 11 months ago.
A South African official said Lavrov would later on visit Eswatini, Botswana and Angola.
South Africa is a strategic ally of Russia, among other such nations, on a continent which consists of different opinions over the invasion and is a focus of the West who have been attempting to take it on its side and isolate the largest country due to its military actions.
Lavrov visited South Africa on Monday, a day before US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was scheduled to arrive for a long trip, as part of a strategy to sideline the US.
The United States is, however, worried about the same and has expressed its concern.
“The United States has concerns about any country … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
South African opposition parties and even a small portion of the Ukrainian community there objected to hosting Lavrov, saying that it is insensitive. The main opposition Democratic Alliance has urged to call off the drills.
South Africa has maintained that it is neutral on the Ukraine conflict and has refused to vote on UN resolutions on the war. Even after much pressure from the US, Pretoria has declined to join the West in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It has strong relations with Russia, an ally of the ruling African National Congress since the time it was only a liberation movement opposing white minority rule. The African nation will host both Russian and Chinese navies for joint exercises from February 17-27 exercises in Durban on its east coast.
“All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide. It’s the natural course of relations,” Pandor, alongside Lavrov, told reporters in the capital, Pretoria.
She reiterated her stand and said that she sees a diplomatic solution through dialogue. “As South Africa, our sincere wish that the conflict in Ukraine will soon be brought to a peaceful end through diplomacy and negotiation,” she said.
The military drills would take place on February 24 which is the anniversary of Russia’s “special military operation”.
Russia is accused by Ukraine and its supporters of annexing territory from the neighboring, fellow former Soviet country.
The South African government, with Cyril Ramaphosa as President, showed a desire to consider the Ukraine conflict as a neutral party.
Pandor highlighted that, even when the nation had in the start called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine solely, it no longer remained in that position.
“To repeat that … to Mr Lavrov today would make me appear quite simplistic and infantile, given the massive transfer of arms (to Ukraine) … and all that has occurred (since),” she said.
Lavrov respected South Africa’s unbiased standpoint since the war started a year ago and continued to blame Ukraine and the West entirely for the conflict.
He said, “It is well known that we supported the proposal of the Ukrainian side to negotiate early in the special military operation… it is well known that our American and British and some of our European colleagues told Ukraine that it is too early to deal.”
He also rejected the claims that Russia is targeting civilians, even after it attacked numerous times on residential buildings in Ukraine that, according to experts, is a big factor contributing to war crimes.
Russia has also continuously objected to Ukrainian and Western demands that it step back entirely from Ukraine as a criterion for all kinds of negotiations.
Experts are of the view that South Africa’s hosting military exercises with Russia could impact its position on the international stage.
A visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to South Africa for the BRICS meeting later this year was also extended, though it is not yet known if he would accept the invitation.
South Africa, Russia and China are all part of BRICS which also consist of Brazil and India.