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Johannesburg — Next month, on the one-year anniversary of the start of, South Africa will be hosting Russian and Chinese forces for a joint naval exercise. The timing of the drills — which were apparently planned during Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked assault on Ukraine — have the U.S. "concerned," and will at the very least present South Africa with a diplomatic challenge as the world marks a year of brutal warfare with no end in sight.
The South African National Defense Force has said "Exercise Mosi II" will be held between February 17 and 27 off the country's Indian Ocean coast, to share "operational skills and knowledge."
South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor deflected criticism this week of the looming military drills, saying it was merely "an exercise with friends."
Meeting with Pandor on Monday, Russia's own veteran foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the military drills were "transparent and that the three countries had provided all relevant information."
Russia's state-run TASS news agency said a Russian warship armed with new-generation hypersonic cruise weapons would take part in the exercise.
The drills have been planned for several months, so it's "not a last-minute decision," notes Pauline Bax, the Deputy Director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. But she adds that on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, "diplomatically, it's quite awkward, and something that South Africa could have pushed to another date."
"We are concerned about South Africa's plan to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and the PRC in February, even as Moscow continues its brutal and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine," David Feldmann, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, told CBS News in response to the remarks by the senior South African and Russian diplomats.
The three countries taking part in the exercises are all members of the BRICS mechanism, a partnership of the world's five fastest-growing developing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. According to the group's own description, it aims to promote peace, security, development and cooperation.
It is not a military alliance like NATO, but there has been talk of a possible BRICS naval exercise for years. A similar exercise between the same three nations was held in October 2019 in Cape Town.
In a statement, the Ministry of Defense and Military Veterans said 350 South African National Defense Force personnel would participate in the drills, noting that in recent Months the SANDF has held military exercises with many other countries, including the United Kingdom, China and Nigeria, as well as last year with the U.S.
"South Africa sees Exercise Mosi II as an opportunity to contribute towards further strengthening the strong bonds that exist between South Africa, Russia and China," the statement said.
The South African Air Force and Military Health Service, along with the Joint Operations, Defence Intelligence, Defence Foreign Relations and Military Police will join the South African National Defence Force Maritime service for the drills. An official told CBS News that a number of naval activities were planned, with a sea phase set to run for two days from February 25, which will include search and rescue, vessel in distress, gunnery, force protection and air defense exercises.
South Africa has notably abstained from previous United Nations votes on resolutions condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, opting to portray itself as a neutral party on the war despite significant pressure from Ukraine and its Western partners to take a stand.
Bax, of the International Crisis Group, said the military exercise itself appeared to be relatively unremarkable, as South Africa is a BRICS member and the three nations have held similar war games before as they explore ways to collaborate. But, she said hosting Lavrov this week, diplomatically, was "a little trickier than the navy exercises."
"South Africa has set a different course for itself, and while it's not choosing sides, they are showing Russia it still has friends in the world," said Bax.
The country's largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has called the exercises "silly," with parliamentarian Kobus Marais adding: "While our government has claimed its neutral, this is just another of many incidents where the ANC [the political party in power] has clearly exposed their favouritism towards Russia."
An opinion piece in the Daily Maverick newspaper said the exercise "highlights just how far the country has strayed from its relationships with Western allies."
So, why would South Africa's leaders continue courting strategic alliances with other major powers at the risk of "straying" from long-standing partners? They may simply need all the help they can get.
Racing to the rescue
South Africans have been suffering through the worst-ever scheduled power outages as their nation grapples with severe energy shortages. When televisions can be switched on, many people tune in to see a parade of visiting world leaders, and hope that one of them will offer some assistance in addressing their country's power crisis.
One person called into a local talk show recently and told the host: "I don't care who comes to visit, as long as they figure out how to keep our lights on."
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrived in South Africa, where she's set to discuss the power crisis among other topics during a four-day working visit to different parts of the country.
"We continue to expand and deepen our relationship with South Africa, working on areas of greatest concern to our citizens — expanding trade, securing a just energy transition, and cooperating on global health to save lives," Feldmann, at the U.S. Embassy, told CBS News about Yellen's visit.
The U.S. Treasury chief arrived in South Africa hot on the heels of Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, who met Monday with his South African counterpart during his second African tour since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russian reporters travelling with Lavrov were overheard by local journalists saying the top Russian diplomat would return in February for another tour, this time of northern African countries, meaning that in six months, he will have visited a dozen African nations.
Last week, China's new Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited five African nations, and the visits this week to the continent by both Yellen and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield have been seen widely as anto African nations by Beijing and Moscow.
At a news conference in Moscow on January 18, Lavrov confirmed that his nation would host a second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg from July 23. Lavrov has hinted that Russia may use the summit to sign agreements with African leaders that enable them to work around U.S. sanctions imposed over the Ukraine war, including trade conducted in non-U.S. currency.
"We are drafting documents to reset cooperation mechanisms in this environment of sanctions and threats you mentioned in the context of this U.S. bill," he said. "There will be new trade and investment cooperation tools, logistics chains and payment arrangements. The change to transactions in national currencies is under way."