Russia, South Africa and the ‘Remade Global Order’

PRETORIA, South Africa – January. 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) meets with South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (right) during his official visit to Pretoria

Ihsan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia and South Africa this week vowed to boost bilateral ties and next month embark on joint military exercises to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pretoria as part of an African tour, his second since the invasion, which will also reportedly take him to Botswana, Angola and Eswatini.

Diplomatic analysts told CNBC that the tour was primarily a claim of “not isolating Russia,” conveying the message that despite Western sanctions and efforts to ostracize it from the global stage, key strategic alliances remain in place.

On 24 February 2022, shortly after the Ukrainian invasion, South Africa urged Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine. However, the tone has changed since then. South Africa was one of 15 African countries to abstain from a subsequent UN vote in March to condemn Russia’s war of aggression.

At a joint news conference alongside Lavrov on Monday, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said it would be “simplistic and infantile” to call for Russia’s withdrawal during their meeting, and alluded to the “massive arms transfer” that has since taken place from the West. powers to support Ukraine’s military efforts.

Pandor also praised the “growing economic bilateral relations” between Pretoria and Moscow, along with “political, economic, social, defense and security cooperation”.

She emphasized the multilateral responsibility of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc of leading emerging economies in a changing global environment.

South Africa will host BRICS this year and its ruling African National Congress (ANC) has suggested Pretoria could use the presidency to push for new members to expand the bloc’s presence and challenge the dominance of global superpowers.

“The current global geopolitical tensions clearly signal the need to create institutional mechanisms that will have a solid form and global trust to promote and support global peace and security – the BRICS countries should play a proactive role in the emerging processes and ensure that they are part of a redesigned global order.” Pandora said.

Although she called for the war to be “brought to a peaceful end through diplomacy and negotiation”, there was no direct condemnation of the invasion.

Timing of joint naval exercise ‘may be deliberate’

South Africa will host joint naval exercises with Russia and China between February 17 and 27, and Pandor is addressing concerns by arguing that holding such operations with “friends” was part of the “natural course of relations”, criticizing the notion that only some countries are acceptable partners.

Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told CNBC on Tuesday that the timing of the joint exercise, called “Mosi,” which means “smoke” in the Tswana language, “will attract attention internationally. .” He also expressed suspicion that it “could be intentional.”

“Of course one can choose the timing of these things and choosing the timing to be right on the anniversary is perhaps South Africa’s way of saying, ‘Look, we are a sovereign independent country and we will manage our foreign policy. the way we see fit and the way that will advance our interests, and no one will tell us and no one will burn us,” Gruzd said.

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South Africa came under pressure from Western partners to join the opposition to the invasion of Ukraine and fiercely refused to be “bullied”, in Pandora’s words, into taking sides.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that “the United States is concerned about any country … exercising with Russia while Russia is waging a brutal war against Ukraine.”

Analysts have pointed out that central to Russia’s appeal to many African nations is its ability to promote itself as an anti-imperialist adversary and tap into the popular resentment of the likes of the US, Britain and France over a history of Western oppression on the continent.

Eleonora Tafuro, senior researcher at the Center for Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia at Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told CNBC on Tuesday that despite having little trade relations with the African continent compared to the European Union, Russia has been able to capitalize on “anti-imperialist sentiments ” and perceived “patronizing attitudes” from the West.

We build on “anti-colonial” sentiments

In her opening speech on Monday, Pandor noted that 30 years ago – then part of the Soviet Union – the Russian Federation supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, which would go on to form the base of the ANC.

“It is ironic that this particular element is playing to the Kremlin’s end to justify this war of aggression against Ukraine,” Tafuro said, noting that there is a lack of empathy among African states towards Ukrainians as co-victims of imperialism.

“I think Russia is very skillful in using information and propaganda to create this narrative, but this narrative is successful because there is already this deep culture of anti-Western sentiment in countries like South Africa, and it’s related to their own history of being. victims of imperialism.”

Russia’s growing influence has been evident in recent weeks during protests in Burkina Faso, where demonstrators denounced France and the regional ECOWAS bloc and waved Russian flags.

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – January 20, 2023: A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest in support of Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore, demanding the departure of the French ambassador and military forces.


“There is no doubt that there is growing discontent with France on its former turf, and Russia thrives on chaos and its institutions fill the gap as France retreats,” Gruzd pointed out.

He also noted that Russia’s social media operations, along with promoting pro-Kremlin messages, also built on “existing fault lines such as anti-French or anti-gay sentiment” and rivalries between political blocs.

“Countries like South Africa have really entered into the narrative of Russia, that it is an anti-colonial power, that it supports the little guy, that having one superpower and having that superpower, which is the US, is not good for the world, that there must be multipolarity, that there must be alternative energy sources and energy distribution,” explained Gruzd.

“It resonates and it resonates strongly and it resonates strongly with countries that have also been marginalized by the West.”

African nations are not ‘territory for great power competition’

In the past month alone, Lavrov, China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all embarked on African trips, with Yellen set to meet with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also visited the continent last year, while US President Joe Biden held a US-Africa summit in December, seen as an effort to regain some of the influence Washington has lost. to China over the past decade or more.

Both Tafuro and Gruzd noted that the flurry of diplomatic activity should not be seen as a “pull over Africa”, as the continent’s negotiating power means it now has a firm seat at the table.

“I think from an African point of view, we would rather not be classified as just a space for great power rivalry, but as a recognition that African governments and African companies are active in their own right, so they are not pawns in something, they are players sitting around a chessboard,” Gruzd said.

GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – January 21, 2023: US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (R) receives Goree’s Great Pilgrim diploma from Goree lawyer and mayor Augustin Senghor (L) during a visit to Goree Island off the coast of Goree. Dakar 21 January 2023.

SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

Tafuro also argued that comparing it to the Cold War or simplifying diplomatic visits as part of a competition for resources misses a major paradigm shift currently underway.

“Sometimes we just forget that these African countries have their own agency and ultimately it’s up to them to decide whether a relationship with China or Turkey or Russia is worthwhile for them and whether it’s beneficial for them to maintain, for example, a balanced approach such as trading with each , who wants to trade,” she said.

“It’s also up to them to shape their relationship with these outside players.”

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