How Putin gave South Africa a big diplomatic headache

Vladimir Putin in South Africa in 2018

Vladimir Putin in South Africa in 2018

The past few months have been uncomfortable for South African diplomacy.

A country that would like to be seen as a wise and consistent ambassador for a brokered peace in Ukraine, and a crusader champion of a non-aligned, multi-polar world, has been caught up in a series of very public international squabbles that have left its government confused. and undecided, and its currency crashing to new lows.

The problem is South Africa’s warm relationship with Russia – and a growing Western perception that the country has decided to support Moscow in its war against Ukraine, and perhaps even send it arms.

But is this perception correct? And what could all this mean for South Africa’s reputation and its increasingly fragile economy?

“It’s a nightmare,” admitted a senior South African official. They were speaking privately in Cape Town this week, on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers from the BRICS group, made up of Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. .

Western diplomats have privately expressed deep frustration with South Africa’s stance towards Russia and its faltering attempts to live up to its self-proclaimed “impartiality” in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. the Kremlin.

“The heart of the government is with the Russians. There is no doubt about it. They believe that the world is slipping out of Western hands – that the Russians are stronger and will win, and that they are investing in a strategic future, a new order world,” said Irina Filatova, a Cape Town-based Russian scholar.

Vladimir Putin (l) and Cyril Ramaphosa (d) in 2019

South Africa’s president (right) refused to condemn the Russian leader’s invasion of Ukraine

But others here argue that the West has it all wrong and misinterprets South Africa and worries about what amounts to a storm in a diplomatic teacup.

“Serious person within the [South African] government wants to distance itself from the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU. Everyone knows that they are extremely important trading partners. It’s just a mess in terms of timing and perception, not in terms of substance,” political analyst Philani Mthembu argued.

So where did things go wrong?

South Africa’s initial response to the Russian invasion was to call on Moscow to withdraw its forces “immediately”. Soon after, he changed course, refused to condemn the Kremlin at the United Nations and adopted a policy of neutrality towards the conflict.

But that neutral stance has since been undermined by a series of actions and statements that have annoyed Ukraine’s allies.

South Africa hosted the Russian Navy for exercises on the first anniversary of the invasion.

He warmly welcomed a succession of senior Kremlin officials, then sent his army chief to Moscow on a “combat readiness” trip.

And senior officials here have often repeated Kremlin talking points about how the US is waging a “proxy” war and how a Western-armed Ukraine now poses a threat to Russia.

Ship moored in port

An investigation is underway into the circumstances of the docking of the Russian ship The Lady R in South Africa last December

Western diplomatic frustration finally came to light in a recent press conference by US Ambassador Reuben Brigety.

He accused South Africa of “arming Russia” by shipping “weapons and ammunition” on a Russian vessel which docked at a well-guarded navy port near Cape Town last December.

“We are convinced that weapons were loaded on this ship. I would bet my life on the accuracy of this assertion,” said Ambassador Brigety, who then raised the possibility of America responding with trade restrictions.

The ambassador’s comments provoked fury in many quarters in South Africa, with some quick to see a colonial mentality on display.

“He was completely out of order. Do we have to bow to everything the Americans say? I really don’t agree with that. It’s geopolitical blackmail,” said Mavuso Msimang, a prominent wrestling veteran anti-apartheid.

Many South Africans remember Moscow’s support for liberation movements across the continent and favor movements – championed by the Brics group – for a more multipolar world.

South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise summed up the government’s frustration. She thundered a single South African slang word, politely meaning “nothing”, to describe exactly how many weapons South Africa had shipped to Russia.

African Peace Proposal

There have been whispers here that the US ambassador may have overstated his case, but while he later sought to “correct any misconceptions”, he pointedly failed to apologize or retract his claims.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a press conference as BRICS foreign ministers meet in Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa’s foreign minister (L) hosted her Russian counterpart (R) for a Brics meeting this week

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – beset by domestic crises – played for time by calling for an independent investigation into what was or was not smuggled or shipped through the South African naval base of Simon’s Town.

Since then, in a move that could help patch up his government’s neutral status, he has announced plans for a six-president-strong African peace delegation to Moscow and Kyiv.

“It won’t be a walk in the park…but it has to be done,” South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor told a local radio station.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has accused the African National Congress (ANC) of sucking up Russia simply because the near-bankrupt ruling party wants to keep pocketing large donations from the Kremlin and its agents.

“South Africa simply cannot be complicit in a war of aggression that now risks undermining both our national priorities and international peace and security,” a DA official fumed.

The economic cost of South Africa’s muddled diplomacy already seems high.

After the arms swaps with the US ambassador, South Africa’s currency, the rand, fell sharply against the US dollar, and there are legitimate concerns that foreign investment and foreign trade deals could suffer.

Bad news for a country already struggling with a failing energy system, chronic unemployment and collapsing infrastructure.

A billboard urging the South African President to arrest Mr Putin if he comes to the Brics summit - March 2023

Pressure is also mounting at home over Mr Putin’s invitation to attend the summit in August

And South Africa now faces another diplomatic headache, as it grapples with whether to honor its invitation to President Vladimir Putin to travel to Johannesburg in August for a summit of Bricks.

He is the subject of an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. If he came, South Africa would be legally obliged to arrest him.

“If Putin arrives, I think the shock will be severe. There will be an absolutely massive attack [Western] backlash. The currency would explode,” market analyst Peter Attard Montalto warned, expressing concern that South Africa would be manipulated by Russia and unnecessarily antagonize Western nations.

But behind the scenes there are growing indications that South Africa is frantically looking for ways to avoid hosting Mr Putin, perhaps by moving the summit to another country, as it continues to juggle its economic dependence on Western nations, with its growing ties to the Brics.

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