South Africa describes itself as neutral in the Ukraine war. But soon a joint war maneuver with Russia is to take place there. And Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is a “good friend,” according to Pretoria. How did the unusual connection between the two states come about?

Around the anniversary of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, South Africa invited warships from Russia and China to a joint maneuver. The exercises, dubbed Operation Mosi, which means “smoke” in the Tswana region language, are scheduled to be held outside the city of Durban from February 17-27.

The maneuver is intended to “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China,” according to “Spiegel” from the South African army. In addition to target practice and maritime escort, air defense is also to be trained. Two Russian warships, two Chinese frigates and over 350 South African military personnel will take part. There was already a similar exercise between the three countries in 2019.

To date, the South African government has remained neutral on the Ukraine war. For example, it abstained from the UN Assembly’s condemnation of the invasion and does not participate in the sanctions imposed by the West.

“Contrary to what our critics claim, South Africa is not giving up its position of neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. We strictly stand by our position that multilateralism and dialogue are the key to sustainable world peace. We continue to call on both parties to seek dialogue as a solution to the current conflict,” said Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor.

The military maneuvers planned for February were “completely normal for her, after all, we have particularly good relations with Russia.” Pandor even described her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as a “dear friend” at a meeting on January 23. For his part, he was pleased about the “openness and responsibility that South Africa is showing on the basis of the national interests of its people”.

The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, condemned the planned maneuver. According to defense policy spokesman Kobus Marais, the country runs the risk of losing its international reputation if it sides with “despicable autocracies,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported.

The foundation of the late Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu also sharply criticized the exercise: “The maneuver is tantamount to a declaration that South Africa joined the war on the side of Russia.” Desmond Tutu himself was not an advocate of neutrality in times of crisis. “Whoever is neutral in times of injustice is taking the side of the oppressor,” the human rights activist is said to have once said.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also referred to the troubled friendship between the two countries during her visit to South Africa last week. Compliance with the sanctions against Russia is particularly important to her.

“We would react quickly and harshly to violations of sanctions by individual companies or states,” said Yellen during a visit to a South African coal mine. According to the Wall Street Journal, the US Treasury Department would be able to impose so-called secondary sanctions on South Africa should the country circumvent Russian sanctions.

“Putin’s Net – How the KGB Retook Russia and Then Set their Eyes on the West” by Catherine Belton.

South Africa’s intense relationship with Russia began long before the Ukraine war. Together with Brazil, India and China, the two countries are part of the BRICS alliance. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) also commemorates the aid provided by the Soviet Union during the liberation movement from apartheid.

While many Western countries ignored or even endorsed racial segregation at the time, the Soviet Union supported the fight against the apartheid regime. Many MPs from the ruling party still see the West as an oppressive power holder.

Steven Gruzd, Russia expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs, also sees a kind of image campaign for Russia in the upcoming maneuvers between the two states. “Russia wants to polish its image and show that it has allies. It strives for diplomatic propaganda and wants to show that it is not isolated, despite Western sanctions, and that it has good, close and long-standing friends in Africa,” Gruzd told the Tagesschau newspaper.

In August, South Africa will again receive a Russian state visit. Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin is also to take part in the planned BRICS summit. It remains to be seen whether he too will be welcomed as a “good friend” of the nation.