- Russia’s Lavrov visits ally South Africa for talks
- Lavrov also goes to Eswatini, Botswana and Angola
- South Africa’s Pandor says naval exercises are ‘natural’
- President Ramaphosa sees South Africa as a neutral party
PRETORIA, Jan 23 (Reuters) – South Africa’s foreign minister on Monday dismissed 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 the comments during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting South Africa 11 months after Russia invaded Ukraine.
A South African official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak, said Lavrov will visit Eswatini, Botswana and Angola afterwards.
South Africa is one of Russia’s key allies on a continent divided over the invasion and the West’s attempts to isolate Moscow through its military actions.
Lavrov visited a day ahead of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s scheduled arrival in South Africa, part of a long trip to the continent to strengthen 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 is waging a brutal war against Ukraine,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
She said she had no information about talks with South Africa on the matter.
Some opposition parties and South Africa’s small Ukrainian community have said Lavrov’s admission was insensitive.
South Africa says it is impartial in the Ukraine conflict 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 it was a liberation movement against white minority rule, and will host a joint exercise with Russia and China on its east coast on February 17-27.
“All countries around the world are conducting military exercises with friends. It’s the natural course of relations,” Pandor told reporters in the capital, Pretoria, along with Lavrov.
The exercise takes place on February 24, the anniversary of what Russia calls its “military special operation.” Ukraine and its allies are accusing Russia of an imperial-style land grab from its neighbor and former ex-Soviet republic.
The government of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has expressed its desire to mediate as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict.
Pandor stressed that while South Africa initially called on Russia to unilaterally withdraw from Ukraine, that was no longer his position.
“To repeat that … to Mr. Lavrov would make me seem rather simplistic and infantile given the massive transfer of arms (to Ukraine) … and everything that has happened (since),” she said.
South Africa has little trade with Russia but holds a worldview – favored by China and Russia – that aims to reverse perceived US hegemony in favor of a “multipolar” world where geopolitical power is more diffuse.
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 the exercise was a “means of strengthening already thriving ties between South Africa, Russia and China”.
Russian news agency TASS reported on Monday that a Russian warship armed with new-generation hypersonic cruise weapons will take part in the exercises.
Lavrov was visiting ahead of a Russia-Africa summit in July. There was no official public comment from the Ukrainian embassy, but officials said they had asked the South African government to help push through a Ukrainian peace plan.
Pandor said South Africa would not be tempted to take sides and accused the West of condemning Russia while ignoring issues such as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“As South Africa, we consistently articulate that we will always stand ready to support the peaceful resolution of conflicts on the (African) continent and around the world,” Pandor said in earlier comments on Monday.
Reporting by Carien Du Plessis, Anait Miridzhanian, Alexander Winning, Estelle Shirbon and Steve Holland; writing by Tim Cocks; Edited by Timothy Heritage, Philippa Fletcher and Grant McCool
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