South Africa’s Russia problem

South Africa’s Russia problem

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South Africa’s Russia problem

In this photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and his South Africa’s counterpart Naledi Pandor pose for a photo prior to their talks in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

The United States and South Africa remain at loggerheads over Pretoria’s apparent shipment of weapons and ammunition to Russia last December on a freighter called the Lady R. The freighter is linked to a Russian company that has been sanctioned for shipping weapons to Russia in support of its invasion of Ukraine.

Allegations about the shipment have been circulating for months. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reportedly asked South African officials for specifics as to what the ship had aboard when it sailed from the port of Simonstown, which is also the headquarters of the South African navy. At a May 11 briefing, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel, while not getting into specifics regarding what might have been shipped to Russia, stated that “we have serious concerns about the docking of a sanctioned Russian vessel at a South African naval port in December of last year.”

More pointedly, Reuben Brigety, the American Ambassador to South Africa, stated that reports about the shipment were accurate. Brigety is a serious individual, a scholar and analyst, who would not make such an assertion if he doubted its veracity. Nevertheless, he tweeted what appeared to be a retraction in the face of a furious response from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation. As media observers pointed out, however, Brigety’s tweet that he was able to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks” was not exactly a full-throated retraction.

For its part, the South African government has not completely denied that there was an arms transfer, only that there was no “official” weapons sale. As a spokesman for the South African Department of International Relations put it, there is “no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question.” The statement was, in effect, a non-denial denial. 

South Africa continues to claim that it is nonaligned and is not supporting Russia. Yet it has not condemned the invasion of Ukraine, as 143 other countries did in a General Assembly vote on Oct. 12, 2022. Moreover, last month, a Russian Ilyushin-76 cargo jet landed at the Waterkloof Air Force base outside Pretoria to unload and load unspecified cargo. A sanctioned Russian cargo airline called Aviacon Zitotrans operates the aircraft. The South African government stated that the aircraft was delivering mail for the Russian embassy. It failed to explain, however, why a plane that can carry 110,000 pounds of cargo was needed to deliver mail.

Earlier this week, South Africa’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Mbatha, raised eyebrows when he met in Moscow with his counterpart, Gen. Oleg Salyukov, to discuss “issues of military cooperation and the implementation of projects geared to enhance the combat readiness of the two countries’ armies.” Given the Russian army’s leading role in the Ukraine invasion, Mbatha’s visit certainly belied his country’s supposedly nonaligned stance.

South Africa is a major recipient of American aid, and has been for many years. The most recent numbers, from 2020, show that Pretoria was the ninth-largest recipient of American assistance, totaling over $1 billion. In his tweet, Ambassador Brigety reiterated the American talking point regarding “the strong partnership between our two countries & the important agenda our Presidents have given us.” However, whether the country deserves the degree of American largesse it receives is an open question. Already some members of Congress are questioning the nature of the American-South African relationship.

Money is fungible, and the resources that America provides to South Africa in the form of economic assistance enable the government to shift funds to its military. For that reason, if for no other, Washington should make it clear that it will not tolerate the intimacy that characterizes Pretoria’s military relationship with Moscow. It probably should frown upon that relationship at all times, but it most certainly should do so now. The Kremlin’s ongoing brutal operation against the Ukrainian state and its people demands nothing less than a powerful American response to Pretoria’s manifestly irresponsible behavior. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.


Foreign Aid

Janet Yellen


Reuben Brigety



Russia-Ukraine war

Russian invasion of Ukraine


South Africa

South Africa

Treasury Department

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