- Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visits ally South Africa for talks
- Lavrov has also been to Eswatini, Botswana and Angola
- Pandor says naval exercises are ‘normal’
- President Ramaphosa of South Africa is a neutral party
PRETORIA (Reuters) – South Africa’s foreign minister on Monday sidestepped criticism of planned joint military exercises with Russia and China, saying hosting such exercises with “friends” was the “natural course of relations”.
Naledi Pandor made her remarks during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting South Africa 11 months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A South African official, who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak, said Lavrov will next visit Eswatini, Botswana and Angola.
South Africa is one of Russia’s most important allies on a continent divided over invasion and Western attempts to isolate Moscow over its military actions.
Lavrov visited the day before US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrived in South Africa as part of a long trip to the continent aimed at strengthening ties with the United States.
In Washington, the White House expressed concern about South Africa’s military plans.
“The United States has concerns about any country… training with Russia while Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine,” said White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre.
She said she had no information to provide regarding talks with South Africa on the matter.
Some opposition parties and the small Ukrainian community in South Africa said hosting Lavrov was insensitive.
South Africa says it is neutral on the conflict in Ukraine and has abstained from voting on UN resolutions on the war.
It has close ties with Moscow, a friend of the ruling African National Congress when the liberation movement opposed white minority rule, and will host a joint exercise with Russia and China on its east coast from February 17-27.
“All countries are conducting military exercises with friends all over the world. It is the natural course of relations,” Pandor, alongside Lavrov, told reporters in the capital, Pretoria.
The exercises will take place on February 24, the anniversary of what Russia calls its “special military operation”. Ukraine and its allies accuse Russia of seizing empire-style territory from its neighbor and sister former Soviet republic.
The government of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has expressed its desire to mediate in the Ukraine conflict as a neutral party.
Pandor emphasized that although South Africa had initially called for Russia to unilaterally withdraw from Ukraine, this was no longer its position.
“To repeat that…to Mr. Lavrov today would make me sound very simplistic and childish, given the massive transfer of arms (to Ukraine)…and everything that has happened (since then),” she said.
South Africa has little trade with Russia but supports a world view – favored by China and Russia – that seeks to undo perceived American hegemony in favor of a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is more diffused.
Lavrov said the military exercises were transparent and that Russia, China and South Africa provided all relevant information.
South Africa’s armed forces said last week that the exercise was “a way to strengthen the already thriving relations between South Africa, Russia and China”.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported on Monday that a Russian warship armed with new-generation hypersonic cruise weapons will take part in the exercise.
Lavrov was visiting the country ahead of the Russia-Africa summit in July. There was no official comment from the Ukrainian embassy, but officials said it had asked the South African government to help advance a Ukrainian peace plan.
Pandor said South Africa would not be drawn into taking sides, and accused the West of condemning Russia while ignoring issues such as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
“As South Africa, we constantly declare that we will always stand ready to support the peaceful resolution of disputes on the (African) continent and around the world,” Pandor said in earlier remarks on Monday.
Additional reporting by Karen du Plessis, Annette Meridzanian, Alexander Winning, Estelle Charbon and Steve Holland; Writing by Tim Cox; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Philippa Fletcher, and Grant McCall
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