Russia, South Africa and a “Reimagined World Order”

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – Jan Feb 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (right) during his official visit to Pretoria

Ihsan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia and South Africa pledged this week to strengthen bilateral ties and will embark on a joint military exercise next month, coinciding with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.

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

Diplomatic analysts told CNBC the tour primarily represented an affirmation of Russia’s ‘non-isolation’, projecting a message that despite Western sanctions and efforts to ostracize it from the world stage, key strategic alliances remain. in place.

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

At a joint press conference alongside Lavrov on Monday, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said it would have been ‘simplistic and childish’ to demand Russia’s withdrawal from their meeting , and alluded to the “mass arms transfer” that has since occurred from the West. powers to support Ukraine’s military efforts.

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

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She highlighted the multilateral responsibilities of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc of major emerging economies in a changing global landscape.

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

“Current global geopolitical tensions clearly signal the need to create institutional mechanisms that will have the stature and global confidence necessary to promote and sustain global peace and security – BRICS should play a proactive role in emerging processes and ensure that they are part of a redesigned order, says Pandor.

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

Timing of joint naval exercise ‘could be deliberated’

South Africa will host a joint naval exercise with Russia and China between February 17 and 27, and Pandor hit back at concerns by saying staging such operations with ‘friends’ was part of the ‘natural course’. relationships”, criticizing the notion that only certain 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, dubbed “Mosi” which means “Smoke” in the Tswana language, “would attract international attention”. and expressed suspicion that it “might be deliberate”.

“Obviously you can choose the timing of these things and having chosen when it would just be the anniversary day, maybe that’s the way South Africa says ‘look, we’re a sovereign independent country and we will conduct our foreign policy the way we see fit, and in the way that betters our interests, and no one will tell us and scald us’.”

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South Africa was pressured by Western partners to align itself with opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, and fiercely refused to be “bullied”, in Pandor’s words, to to take part.

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.”

At the heart of Russia’s appeal to many African countries, analysts have pointed out, is its ability to present itself as an anti-imperialist resistance, tapping into popular resentment in the US, UK and France because of the history of Western oppression on the continent.

Eleonora Tafuro, senior researcher at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Center at the Italian Institute for International Policy Studies (ISPI), told CNBC on Tuesday that despite its weak commercial relationship with the African continent compared to that of the European Union European Union, Russia was able to capitalize on the perceived “anti-imperialist sentiments” and “condescending attitudes” of the West.

Relying on “anti-colonial” sentiments

In his opening speech on Monday, Pandor noted the Russian Federation’s support 30 years ago – then as part of the Soviet Union – for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that would form the basis of the ANC.

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

“I think Russia uses information and propaganda very skilfully to build 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 has to do with their own history of being victims of imperialism.”

Russia’s growing influence was evident in recent weeks during protests in Burkina Faso, with protesters condemning France and the regional bloc ECOWAS while waving 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’s President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of the French Ambassador and forces military.

OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

“There is no doubt that there is growing discontent with France in its former playgrounds and that Russia is feeding on the chaos, and its institutions are filling the void as France retreats,” Gruzd pointed out.

He also noted that Russian social media operations, as well as the promotion of pro-Kremlin messages, also relied on “existing fault lines, such as anti-French sentiment or anti-gay sentiment,” and rivalries between political blocs.

“Countries like South Africa have really bought into Russia’s narrative that it’s an anti-colonial power, that it supports the little man, that having a superpower and that superpower being the United States doesn’t is not good for the world, that there must be multipolarity, that there must be alternative sources of power supply and energy distribution,” Gruzd explained.

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

African nations are not “a competition ground for great powers”

Over the past month, Lavrov, China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all embarked on African tours, with Yellen due to meet 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 reclaim some of the influence that Washington has lost. in China over the last decade or more.

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

“I think from an African perspective, we would rather be categorized not just as a great power competition ground, but a recognition that African governments and African societies are active in their own right, so they are not not a pawn in the game, it’s players sitting around the board,” Gruzd said.

GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – January 21, 2023: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (R) receives a Great Goree Pilgrim Diploma from Goree Lawyer and Mayor Augustin Senghor (L) during a a visit to the island of Gorée, off the city of Dakar on January 21, 2023.

SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

Tafuro also argued that comparisons to the Cold War or the simplification of diplomatic visits to competition for resources misses the major paradigm shift that is currently underway.

“Sometimes we just forget that these African countries have their own agency and ultimately it’s up to them whether the relationship with China or Turkey or Russia is worth it and whether it’s beneficial for them to maintain, for example, a balanced approach, like doing business with anyone who wants to do business,” she said.

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

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