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US accuses South Africa of secretly arming Russia as war in Ukraine escalates

May 12, 2023

The US accused the South Africa government on Thursday of secretly providing weapons to Russia last December, escalating an already contentious geopolitical controversy for the Biden administration over whether the US ally is getting too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At a news conference in the South African capital, U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety said the Biden administration is certain that arms were loaded onto a vessel in the dead of night at the Simon’s Town naval base over three days and then transported to Russia, according to reports of his comments by South African news outlets.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was asked about Brigety’s comments during a meeting of Parliament and refused to confirm or deny the U.S. accusations.

“The matter is being looked into,” Ramaphosa told political opposition leader John Steenhuisen, according to a video of the proceedings viewed by USA TODAY. “And in time in time we’ll be able to speak about it. An investigation is underway.

Ramaphosa declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

The controversy comes as Russia and the US feud over the allegiances of old and new allies in what has increasingly become an arms race and battle for influence over the war in Ukraine. Brigety’s sharp comments also underscored the increasing tensions between the West and countries that have stopped short of condemning Russia over the war or joining in sanctions efforts.

Steenhuisen told the South African president that “ammunition and materials of war were loaded onto the sanctioned Russian ship ‘the Lady R’ when she docked at your government’s naval base in Simon’s Town last December. This suggests that the ANC government is actively arming Russian soldiers who are murdering and maiming innocent people, not only in Ukraine but also across the African continent.”

“It’s been half a year now since the scandal of the ‘Lady R’ docking in Simon’s Town broke,” Steenhuisen continued. “And I find it inconceivable that a president worth his salt would not have been briefed on the situation by now.”

Brigety said South Africa’s alleged arming of Russia during its invasion of Ukraine was “extremely serious” and called into question South Africa’s supposed neutral stance in the conflict.

“Among the things we (the U.S.) noted was the docking of the cargo ship in the Simon’s Town Naval Base between the 6th and 8th December 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition onto that vessel in Simon’s Town as it made its way back to Russia,” Brigety was quoted as saying, according to media covering his news conference.

Moeletsi Mbeki, a political analyst and deputy chairperson of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the United States has closely watched the strategic port city dating back decades, and likely has near iron-clad intelligence.

“I think it’s very improbable, it’s very unlikely that they would make such an allegation if they didn’t have evidence,” Mbeki said on a televised interview on one of South Africa’s major news outlets. “The United States has a huge interest in Simon’s Town and in the Cape sea route. Even during the apartheid era, the United States government and the British government had an agreement with the apartheid government to monitor Soviet shipping going around the Cape.

U.S. concerns about a key ally

Vedant Patel, the acting State Department spokesperson, said at a briefing that the Biden administration “has serious concerns about the docking of a sanctioned Russian cargo vessel at a South African naval port in December of last year. And as good partners do, we have raised those concerns directly with multiple South African officials.

Asked whether the U.S. believes the South Africa government was fully aware, Patel said, “We have been quite clear and have not parsed words about any country taking steps to support Russia’s illegal and brutal war in Ukraine, and we will continue to engage with partners and countries on this topic, but I’m just not going to offer an assessment on that from here.”

But, he added, “We remain committed to our affirmative agenda of our bilateral relationship with South Africa, one that is focused on the priorities the two governments share.”

Patel said that includes issues of global peace and security, trade relations, a shared health agenda, finding ways in which United States can be helpful to energy challenges and work on climate change.

Steenhuisen’s party, the Democratic Alliance, had raised questions earlier this year about a “mystery” Russian vessel making a stop at the Simon’s Town base.

At the time, the South African government didn’t comment publicly on the alleged incident, saying it needed to gather information. Then, in late December, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said the ship appeared to be handling an “old order” for ammunition, and she indicated that arms were offloaded, not loaded onto the ship.

The South African government, a key partner for the U.S. in Africa, has stated numerous times it has a neutral position on the war in Ukraine and wants the conflict resolved peacefully.

But recent displays of its closeness to Russia opened Africa’s most developed country to accusations that it has effectively taken Russia’s side.

South Africa hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in January, around a month after the alleged visit by the Lady R, giving him a platform to blame the West for the war in Ukraine.

Weeks later, South Africa allowed warships from the Russian and Chinese navies to perform drills off its east coast. The Russian navy brought its Admiral Gorshkov frigate, one of its navy’s flagship vessels.

The South African navy also took part in the drills and characterized them as exercises that would “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.

South Africa’s decision to stage those naval drills in February, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, raised “serious concerns” for the U.S., Brigety was quoted as saying Thursday.

At the time of the drills, the South African armed forces said they were planned years ago before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

South Africa also faces a diplomatic dilemma over a possible visit this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for alleged war crimes involving the abductions of children from Ukraine.

Putin is due to visit South Africa in August for a meeting of leaders of the BRICS economic bloc, which is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

South Africa is a signatory to the international war crimes court and therefore obliged to arrest Putin. But the government has indicated it will not detain the Russian leader and has threatened to leave the ICC instead.

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress Party, which is led by Ramaphosa, sent a delegation to Moscow last month and spoke of strengthening ties with Russia, further straining the country’s relationship with the U.S.(USA Today)

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