SA Army Chief’s visit to Russia not out of the ordinary – SANDF

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SA Army Chief Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha is in Moscow for a bilateral visit between the two military establishments in what the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said is a normal and long-planned engagement.

The three-star’s visit is, according to SANDF Corporate Communication Director Brigadier General Andries Mahapa, in line with “a longstanding arrangement”.

Coming hard on the heels of a potential diplomatic incident regarding what a Russian cargo vessel did or did not load/unload in Naval Base (NB) Simon’s Town in December, Mbatha’s visit has raised eyebrows and questions after US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused South Africa of exporting weaponry to Russia. He subsequently apologised for his conduct last week, although Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, said he did not apologise for the allegations he made.

Leading the charge in questioning Mbatha’s visit to Russia is Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister, Kobus Marais. He maintains the three-star’s visit “again demonstrates government’s callousness and insensitivity to South Africa’s diplomatic and trade dilemma”.

Explaining the bilateral, Mahapa said Mbatha was invited by his Russian counterpart (Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, Russian Ground Forces Commander-in-Chief) for a “goodwill visit”. The visit, with no dates specified, includes a call to the higher combined Army Academy and the Artillery Military Academy. “During this visit, the Chief of the SA Army will also have staff talks with military officials,” the SANDF statement reads.

Marais maintains the only reason the visit was confirmed by the SANDF is because it was reported by Russian media.

“I am quite sure had Russian media not reported on this visit, it would have been hidden from the South African public like many other events and instances where government tried to hide and obfuscate embarrassing and disgusting conduct,” was his blunt view.

Russian news agency TASS said the generals discussed “issues relating to military co-operation and interaction aimed at implementation of projects to improve combat readiness of the armed forces of both countries”.

The SANDF statement makes no mention of when Mbatha arrived in the Russian capital or when he is due to return to South Africa, although it seems his visit started on Monday.

South Africa and Russia have enjoyed longstanding military ties, for example in 1995 signing agreements on military technical co-operation and co-operation between their respective defence ministries. South Africa has taken part in Russia’s annual Army Games from 2016 and has sent military personnel to train in Russia, including members of the SA Air Force.

In a strong signal of its willingness to engage with South Africa, the Russian Air Force in October 2019 sent two Tu-160 strategic bombers to Air Force Base Waterkloof in the type’s first visit to the continent, coinciding with the first Russia-Africa Summit, hosted in Russia.

More recently, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise in August last year went to Russia to attend the 10th Moscow Conference on International Security at the invitation of Russian Minister of Defence, General Sergei Shoigu.

The SANDF is getting caught up in diplomatic rows over its involvement with Russia ever since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with its decision to proceed with naval Exercise Mosi II in February between Russia, China and South Africa attracting criticism, especially as the exercise coincided with the one year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa’s non-aligned position did not favour Russia over other states and reiterated its call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine. His comments came after the Lady R storm, in which Brigety also said senior US officials had “profound concerns” over South Africa’s professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Presidency said no concrete evidence has been provided to support the claims made by Brigety, but that an inquiry led by a retired judge would look in to them.

Ramaphosa said that South Africa would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” over Ukraine despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to pick sides.

Pandor on Tuesday said she was shocked by Brigety’s allegations and the “inappropriate manner” in which they were levelled. “Arms are sold by private sector defence companies, so there’s a procedure in law that is followed. To go to the public and say South Africa sold arms is actually totally misrepresenting our country and the government,” she said.

To date, no evidence has been provided to support Brigety’s claim, with South Africa’s biggest defence companies denying supplying hardware or ammunition, and the National Conventional Arms Control Committee having no records of recent exports to Russia.