South Africa joins with Russia and China for February military drills

Russia and South Africa have deep historical ties.

South Africa joins with Russia and China for  February military drills
South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor shakes hands with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ahead of their bilateral meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The backstory: Russia and South Africa have deep historical ties, as the Soviet Union supported the African National Congress (ANC) when it was a liberation movement opposing white minority rule and apartheid. When the ANC was banned from the South African government, the Soviet Union sent the group money to keep it going. Now, the ANC is the dominant party in South Africa. South Africa has also had military relations with both China and Russia. In 2019, all three of their navies joined for drills in Cape Town. But, South Africa has also conducted military drills with the US.

More recently: When Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, South Africa was among the countries that didn't condemn the move. It says it's impartial in the conflict, having good relations with Russia and Ukraine. Analysts say South Africa sees the war in Ukraine as a European conflict that it doesn't have any reason to be involved in.

The development: In February, China, Russia and South Africa are planning on running joint military drills for the second time. These will involve more than 350 South African military staff from different divisions and their Russian and Chinese counterparts. Announced last Thursday, the official goal of these drills is to pass on military skills and knowledge. They'll take place on South Africa's east coast. The US has already criticized the drills as it tries to isolate Russia because of the Ukraine conflict.

Key comments:

"South Africa will host the Chinese and Russian Federation navies in a multilateral maritime exercise between February 17 and 27," the South African military said in a statement.

"All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide. It's the natural course of relations," Naledi Pandor, South Africa's foreign minister, told reporters in South Africa's capital, Pretoria.

David Feldmann, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, said, "We note with concern" the plan for these 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."

"Clearly what they are showing now is a lack of neutrality," said Kobus Marais, a member of South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the drills were transparent and that Moscow wasn't looking for any "scandals" concerning the issue.