WAR IN EUROPE
Pretoria scrambles to repair relations with Russia after calling for invasion forces to leave Ukraine
South Africa issued a surprisingly strong endorsement of Ukraine’s sovereignty last week. Now it’s scrambling to patch up relations with the Kremlin. Defence Minister Thandi Modise reportedly celebrated Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day at a reception at Russian ambassador's residence in Pretoria on Thursday night, just hours after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities.
South Africa has scrambled to patch up relations with Russia after International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor issued an unusually strong statement calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was reported by the Sunday Times to be unhappy with the statement because he felt it contradicted South Africa’s policy.
A day after the statement from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) — apparently cleared by Pandor — which called for Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Ramaphosa seemed instead to blame US President Joe Biden for the invasion. He suggested that if Biden had agreed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin unconditionally days before Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, it would have been averted.
He was apparently referring to Biden’s statement of 21 February that he would only meet Putin if the Russian president agreed in advance not to invade Ukraine.
The Sunday Times quoted unnamed sources in the Union Buildings as saying that Ramaphosa understood the history of the conflict. This seemed to suggest that Ramaphosa shared the view that Putin had been provoked to invade by broken Western promises in the 1990s not to extend membership of Nato up to Russia’s frontiers. In the runup to the invasion, Putin demanded that Nato guarantee that it would never allow Ukraine to join the intergovernmental military alliance, but Nato would not provide that guarantee.
South Africa and Russia are both members of the BRICS bloc, which also includes Brazil, India and China, and which regards itself as a counter to what it sees as Western dominance of the world security order. The other BRICS members have refrained from criticising Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Sunday, Ramaphosa indirectly intervened to reassure Russia that South Africa was on its side. Ramaphosa’s acting spokesperson, Tyrone Seale, told Daily Maverick that Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele had resolved the issue when he was asked about it at a briefing of the Cabinet security cluster on Sunday.
Gungubele said the government’s stance was that it was for the parties in the conflict to mediate and negotiate.
“Over and above that, it is the stance of this country that we will always prefer peaceful solutions,” Gungubele said.
“We will always be opposed to any conflict that leads to a loss of life. We are not prepared to say anything beyond that,” he added, apparently trying to delete Pandor’s remarks retrospectively.
The ANC took a similar position, saying the conflict should be resolved in negotiations by the two warring parties. Beyond that, Luthuli House’s statement was rather confusing, not really clarifying where it stood on the conflict, though appearing to lean towards Russia.
Defence Minister Thandi Modise was presumably acting more in line with Ramaphosa’s view when she reportedly celebrated Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day at a reception at Russian ambassador Ilya Rogachev’s residence in Pretoria on Thursday night, just hours after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities.
Diplomats have circulated a picture of Modise standing with Rogachev at the event, which specifically honours the Russian military. Western diplomatic sources and a Russian source confirmed the event took place on Thursday night.
However, the SA National Defence Force did not confirm or deny this, despite several attempts by Daily Maverick for comment. Western governments are annoyed by what they regard as this insensitive gesture on the day of the invasion. They are also irritated by Ramaphosa blaming the invasion on the US instead of on Russia.
“Some of us were very disappointed when the meeting between President Biden and President Putin did not happen,” Ramaphosa told journalists outside an event on Friday. “Because if that meeting had gone ahead without any conditions I’m sure we would have avoided the calamitous situation that is unfolding now.”
The Defender of the Fatherland Day, which Modise was reportedly celebrating with Rogachev on Thursday, dates back to the Bolshevik revolution and honours Russia’s military veterans.
Defender of the Fatherland Day is actually on 23 February, but because that is a public holiday in Russia, the day is usually celebrated on 24 February.
Russian sources noted that the reception at ambassador Rogachev’s residence was arranged before the invasion of Ukraine.
Modise could have declined to attend the reception after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine earlier in the day, but evidently chose not to. DM