Western diplomats raise alarm on South Africa-Russia-China joint naval exercise during anniversary of Ukraine invasion

Western diplomats raise alarm on South Africa-Russia-China joint naval exercise during anniversary of Ukraine invasion
Zircon missile. (Source: YouTube) | Graphic: (Karmen van Rensburg)

By staging a joint exercise with Russia and China at a highly sensitive time, South Africa is undermining its claim of being ‘nonaligned’ in the Ukrainian war and risking good relations with the West.

Western governments are becoming increasingly agitated about the joint maritime Exercise Mosi II, which the South African, Russian and Chinese navies are set to begin conducting off the KwaZulu-Natal coast from Friday, 17 February.

The 10-day drill is widely being seen as a propaganda exercise for Russia, in particular – an opportunity to show off its military prowess, leaving the depleted South African Navy a virtual spectator to a show in its own front yard.

Western diplomats in South Africa, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, have told DM168 they are particularly worried because the exercise will take place on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year. They had also expressed concern that, according to the official Russian news agency Tass,  Russia would use the exercise to practise firing its supposedly unstoppable hypersonic ship-to-ship Zircon missile.

However the South African National Defence (SANDF) – which was asked
for comment on this last week eventually told DM168 only on Sunday that
“according to the Protocol agreement signed by the three countries, there is no planned launch of any missile during Exercise MOSI II.”

South African military experts told DM168 that they believe Russia will
send at least its state-of-the art frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which carries the
Zircon and other types of missiles and has been exercising in the western
Atlantic. They think China will send at least a heavily armed Type 055
destroyer. The SANDF has since confirmed that the Russian navy would
send one frigate (plus a support tanker) and the Chinese navy would send a
destroyer- but also a frigate and a support vessel.

The military experts believed that the South African Navy
is expected to contribute just the SAS Protea survey ship and the SAS
King Sekhukhune I, an inshore patrol vessel armed with no more than a
20mm cannon for self-defence. However, the SANDF said on Sunday that
the SA Navy would in fact contribute one frigate to the exercise. It is not
clear if this represents a change of plan to avoid what was looking likely to
be an unbalanced exercise.

SAS Mendi moored in Simonstown in 2022. (Photo: Wikipedia / Jordan Roderick)

The Admiral Gorshkov is a 4,500-tonne vessel with a crew of about 210.
China’s Type 055 destroyer is even larger and is classified by Nato as a
missile cruiser. It displaces more than 11,000 tonnes and has a crew of about 300.

In comparison, South Africa’s four German-built Valour class frigates
displace 3 700 tonnes and carry crews of about 150.

If the expected Russian and Chinese ships arrive, South
Africa would still be heavily outgunned and outclassed, raising questions
about what value it could possibly extract from the unbalanced exercise.

One ambassador told DM168 that several Western countries were discussing the possibility of formally raising an objection to the exercise to Pretoria. However, they are also wary of offending the South African government, which has become hypersensitive to Western criticism of its warm relations with Russia since Moscow attacked Ukraine.

Some Western embassies have raised their concerns in private and been rebuffed. The closest they have come to public criticism was in a blog by the European Union’s vice-president and foreign minister, Josep Borrell, after his recent trip to South Africa for official talks with his counterpart, Naledi Pandor.

Borrell said the EU was not asking South Africa to take sides between Russia and the West, but then added: “In this context, conducting naval military drills with Russia and China on the anniversary of Russia’s Ukraine invasion is a matter of serious concern, to say the least.”

Type 055 destroyer
Weight: (Standard) 11,000 tonnes
Length: 180m
Crew: 300+
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Vecteezy)

DM168 heard that even this mild criticism provoked a strong rebuke from Pretoria.

One Western ambassador said he had told his capital that, if the exercise had taken place at any other time, he would have said nothing. But the fact that it was taking place on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion worries his government.

In broader terms, as Borrell hinted, several Western governments are saying that, by participating in a naval exercise with Russia, South Africa has undermined its own claim to be nonaligned in the war.

“You’re taking sides,” one ambassador said he had told Pretoria. The riposte of South African officials was “But you’ve also taken sides. You’re arming Ukraine.

“But we say we are only arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. We are not arming it to attack or invade Russia,” the diplomat replied.

The report that the Admiral Gorshkov would use Exercise Mosi II to practise its skills in firing the Zircon missile has not been officially confirmed. The Tass Russian national news agency reported it, quoting unnamed military sources. But now the SANDF has said that, at least according to the protocol signed by
the three countries for Exercise Mosi II “ there is no planned launch of any
missile during Exercise MOSI II.”

Western diplomats said the firing of Zircon or any missile would be extremely worrying. According to one ambassador that would imply that the South African Navy would be practising its skills in combat, not in anti-piracy or any of the other purposes stated by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Admiral Gorshkov frigate
Weight: (Standard) 4,550 tonnes
Length: 130m
Crew: 210
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Vecteezy)

“But we say in any case what navy? South Africa barely has a functioning navy. So, South Africa will effectively be just a spectator to a Russian and Chinese exercise,” one diplomat said.

Some observers believe Exercise Mosi II will give China and South Africa a rare opportunity to witness Zircon being fired at close quarters and so to check that it performs according to specifications.

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Propaganda coup

But a South African military analyst said this was simply untrue. “South Africa won’t be able to verify anything. None of its ships deployed has sensors that could reliably determine the real performance of a hypersonic anti-ship missile, let alone any other kind of missile, and the SANDF has no telemetry ranges near there. At Overberg Test Range, maybe, but not on the east coast.

“So, there is absolutely zero reason for South Africa to be a ‘witness’ to the launching of a Zircon, except as a propaganda coup.”


Apart from mounting 16 cells for firing Zircon and other anti-ship missiles and 32 cells of various surface-to-air missiles, the Admiral Gorshkov has a 130mm gun and two turrets, each holding twin six-barrel 30mm cannon and several torpedo tubes.

Zircon 3M22. Warhead type: Conventional, nuclear possible. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Vecteezy)

China’s Type 055 destroyer, described as “China’s most modern and capable surface combatant”, also mounts a main 130mm gun, turrets of smaller cannon and, most potently, pods for firing 112 vertically launched, anti-ship, surface-to-air and land-attack missiles in various combinations, plus several torpedo tubes.

The South African Navy’s four Valour class German-made frigates are each equipped with one 76 mm compact naval gun; one 35mm dual purpose gun;; two remote-controlled 20 mm cannons; a 16-cell pod for vertical launching of up to 16 surface-to-air missiles; and two 4-cell pods for launching up to 8 surface to surface missiles. The operational status of the missiles is unclear.,

“South Africa is getting played here for a Russian propaganda coup,” a
military analyst concluded.

The optics of South African Navy ships exercising with these ships off South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast would also be bad at this time. Though foreign governments say they do not believe the Admiral Gorshkov has fired missiles at Ukraine, similar Russian ships have targeted Ukrainian cities with hundreds of missiles from the Black Sea, destroying vast virtually destroying the electricity grid – and taking many civilian lives.

Meanwhile, at least two Type 055 Chinese destroyers were reported to have taken part in a series of drills last year aimed at Taiwan. This was in response to then US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the island, which infuriated Beijing.

“So, is this going to be an exercise about how to fire missiles at cities? Durban beware!” one  observer asked. Or how to recover a “renegade province”?

DM168 asked  the Russian and Chinese embassies for comment on Exercise Mosi II, in particular on the specific concerns raised by the Western diplomats.

Neither of them replied in time for their comments to be included in this report.

SAS King Sekhukhune. Inshore patrol vessel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Vecteezy)

Local condemnation

The DA has already condemned Exercise Mosi II, and ActionSA also did so this week.

“The joint military exercise between Russia, China and South Africa will amount to a propaganda exercise by the Russian government … to portray the country’s military might ahead of a potential escalation in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war,” ActionSA said in a statement.

“[It] will likely be seen as South Africa aligning ourselves with the Russian government during the Ukraine-Russia war, which may further antagonise our strategic partners and jeopardise trade relations, which is crucial to safeguard the country’s economy.

“Taking on an explicit position of support for Russia may further harm South Africa’s reputation with our international partners.

“At a time where our economy is already struggling, the reality is that we cannot afford to alienate major trade partners by becoming a participant in Russia’s military propaganda, which offers no clear benefit to South Africa.”

The party said it was concerning “that the ANC-led government would contribute in any way to escalating the war”.

“The ANC-led government should respect international rule of law and follow Mandela’s dream of South Africa using the international stage as a champion for human rights.

“Rather than being party to military exercises with an aggressor country, South Africa should be committing itself to help bring the war in Ukraine to an end.”

It is clear that Exercise Mosi II is testing the tolerance of Western countries. All have been highly irritated by South Africa refusing to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine and it’s abstaining from all resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly last year condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

But they have refrained from sharp reaction for fear that this could just drive South Africa further into the Russian camp.

However, Exercise Mosi II suggests that Pretoria is drifting that way anyway, and so some Western governments may start to rethink their strategy. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25. It was updated to include SANDF commentary on Sunday  12 February.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Arnold Krüger says:

    What happened to our subs and frigates? Suppose they are rusting in a corner in Simonstown…… fully decolonised

  • Kirsten du Toit says:

    Esteemed elected, Tot, had happy chats with a pair of Teens. They were planning a jaunt, couple of maneuvers, lunch & a spot of grog. Time, date & rally point set. Then, for the love of tugs, the pesky press pitched. As Tot watched, horrified, they transformed into the fun police.

    Questions, what the halo, a fuss about everything! Tot kept shtum, maybe if he didn’t say anything they’d get bored and go. He didn’t care if they said his tug was small, his friends were big boys with big boats; they wanted him and his tug.

    Ignoring the nay-sayers, Tot confirmed the date. He had no doubts, he’d be aboard the big boats soon. Mulling it over, it was clear, mainly because it would be the first time he’d seen one in operation, that he’d give the Teens his tug in exchange for a ride in their sub, his anticipation almost palpable.

    The Day approaching mercifully muted the background bray of the fun police. When rotten luck collided their paths he’d simply set his jaw, demonstrating resolve; loud braying, he’d block his ears with, as luck would have it, stubby fingers. Boating with the Teens was happening, come hell or highwater!

    The Awards: The Teens tell Tot they’ll go 1st and pick Superpower 1 & 2. The Supers. Tot, very impressed, says ‘Great, I’ll be Super 3’. Newfound joy, quickly culled. Didn’t you know? 3 Supers is bad luck! We know your Pack Name… SuperSlippery!

    SS as he became known, softly mouthed his new name, a sense of belonging radiated.

    The Supers Left.

  • david clegg clegg says:

    If it is true that the only SA components of the ‘exercises’ are the new inshore patrol vessel and the Protea survey ship (non-combatant by definition, ancient and about to be replaced by a new-build),
    then the term ‘exercises’ is derisory. The most that the SA Navy could do, as pointed out in the article, is observe a Russia/Chinese exercise from a safe distance. It would gain no operational experience whatever. However, one of our frigates was exercising in False Bay last week and I would be surprised if it was not present off Durban (despite continuing reports of the demise of the SA Navy, there are some serviceable vessels left and it is not generally the Navy’s habit to comment on press reports), so I would be inclined to wait and see. Of course it is abhorrent that South Africa takes part at all, irrespective of the quality (or lack thereof) of our contribution.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Where does India stand in this? They are in BRICS also. They are countering the take over of ports in the Middle East and Africa by China with investment themselves as a counter to the China Belt and Road initiative. South Africa Ports open to tender now, please provide money. Being in BRICS does the frequent docking of Russian ships have anything to do with this. With Taiwan being the next potential Ukraine is this not just a finger up to the West? Will these international actors not tolerate another party other than the ANC being their puppet partner? The jigsaw puzzle.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      I have said that there is a risk that either China or Russia or both want to take over Simons Town docks. It would be a veeeery valuable prize for them. Think Southern Indian Ocean, South Atlantic, Antarctica. Antarctica = oil and the rest.

  • Len Kruiskamp says:

    That’s how Russia started its invasion of Ukrainian. 🤔

  • Scott Gordon says:

    5 jets flew past East London yesterday afternoon .
    Do we have 5 flying jets ?
    maybe going down for the meeting ?
    BRICS is coming soon , no Indian navy ?
    We had a sanctioned Russian boat docked in Simonstown , collecting whatever .
    I can see super yacht Noord visiting for BRICS.
    And Xi offering to upgrade Simonstown with a 50 year lease 🙂

  • Keith Scott says:

    Russia owns the ANC and so does the former’s bidding regardless of the consequences.
    Mosi means smoke. Mosi II means smoke and mirrors?

  • Keith Brown says:

    So…. Is SA or is it not becoming a Russian vassal state? It is clear that our governing party, without any reference to the electorate, is deeply indebted to Russia – ideologically and financially. What is next in the takeover plan? DM (bless them!) will report on it. But what, apart from fulminate, can we the electorate, do??

    • Jay Kingfisher says:

      Even by ANC standards, this is a spectacular own goal!! Hopefully we can expose the corruption & vote them out of power asap. And use what legal levers we can to expose ANC funding irregularities through chancellor house.

      • Glyn Morgan says:

        Right. The best way to vote them out is to vote DA to form a more solid unit. It will be more efficient at the job than one of these jumped up semi-ANC lumpenproletariat parties.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    I cannot help thinking about the pollution this exercise will cause. Luckily the season of the whales has passed, though I don’t think that would have stopped them.

  • Pierre Joubert says:

    We South Africans better get used to the fact that we have become puppets of Russia and their long term plans.

    Strange, in all the writings since the Lady R docking in Simonstown, nowhere was mention made of the highly relevant 2022 Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, announced by President Putin on the same July 31, 2022 Russian Navy Day, described in Daily Maverick “Exercise in Obscenity” by J Brooks Spector 2023-01-19.

    This all embracing doctrine is an open confrontation to the West and some parts ring like the Communist Manifesto all over. It includes references to Russia’s belief that great powers are entitled to “redraft borders” and “having zones of influence”, however that may be interpreted, but read Ukraine and South Africa’s diplomatic subserviance.

    It voices concern about the lack of naval bases located outside Russia, under which heading needs to be seen; the unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, with Sevastopol as its main fleet base, and the shock establishment of a submarine base at Tartus, Syria in 2017.

    Connect the dots and South Africa’s “strategic position” is once again clear. Simonstown, or any other suitable position of choice, would perfectly serve Russia’s need for increasing it’s global footprint of naval bases. My money is on that as their short term target for South Africa. They dont even have to load their guns, under the toxic self serving BRICS alliance they have already captured South Africa.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      It’s incredible that the powers that be don’t see how stupid they are!

    • Mark Schaufelbuehl says:

      … well written, Pierre. SA’s naive approach is very worrying. And after watching the SONA 23 debacle, SA future is in the stars, but doesn’t look that good… maybe Red Russia Or Red China. And probably poor.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Pierre, what is amusing is how the pro-putin punters stage this as russia versus the west and a rebalancing of global power that was overdue.

      A : the stance against putin is not the “west”. It includes most of south america, central america, a big chunk of africa, Singapore, Japan, Korea, etc. The pro-putin stances are from a gallery that includes South Africa, India, China, Israel and North Korea plus obviously putin’s satellite neighbors.

      B : there is no question of power. Russia’s economy is the size of Spain’s and it is ONLY a nuclear power as its pathetic military capabilities are now on show for a year.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      My view exactly!

  • Antony Goedhals says:

    As a South African I condemn the ANC for allying itself with the murderous bullies Russia and China. I call on our remaining allies to condemn the ANC and punish South Africa with the sanctions we so richly deserve. The sooner South Africa collapses economically and politically (and the ANC has already taken us almost to the end of that dark and potholed road), the sooner this corrupt government might face justice – and a new body politic arise. The South African state is riddled with the cancers of greed and corruption and psychopathic megalomania, as well as a dose of terminal incompetence. The ANC ignores the suffering of South Africans (and Ukrainians, Tibetans, Uighurs in Xinjiang, the downtrodden and surveilled masses of China and Russia) and looks only to stuffing its dying body with what little goodness can still be extracted from the land and its people. Down with you all! May you disappear in the descending darkness – Xi, Putin, ANC – and a new world of fairness and freedom, equity and tolerance, grow in the new dawn from the fertile fields of your demise.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Perhaps the quid pro quo…. We give you diesel ( at an inflated price to build in commission/incentive for the minister) you let us test our missiles and destroy your Marine habitats! These idiots need to go. Voetsak ANC!

  • Marc Caldwell says:

    When the Russian invasion of Ukraine becomes a wider war — WW3 — how is South Africa going to fare now that they have clearly taken sides? WW3 will certainly break out, if it has not already begun. Surely someone will want to control the Cape sea route. I wouldn’t want to be living anywhere near Simon’s Town.

  • Pagani Paganini says:

    Peter Fabricius, what is an issue for many South Africans is the unresolved citrus dispute between EU and SA. EU restrictions halted South African citrus exports to the EU over the last six months ago. The citrus sector generates over R130 bn in annual and at least 100,000 jobs are on the line. This is what matters you should be telling us. Russia/Ukraine war…nah! Not interested. Whatever position SA government adopts is neither here nor there. That’s elite side-show.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Shameless South Africa in bed with the criminals of the world!

  • Confucious Says says:

    How cans SA even consider taking part when all the coal for their steam-powered paddle boat is now wet?? How about the coal-fired submarine that is there to protect sailors from sharks? Have they managed to close the windows yet? Or do they need to stage manoeuvres so that they can borrow semi-competent sailors to actually turn the screws a few times? Bunch of wannabe turkeys!

  • Confucious Says says:

    The SA navy has renamed its frigates to f@ckits! It all makes sense now!

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    And the citizens of this country stand helplessly by and watch this outrage

  • Johan Buys says:

    Well, after an “accident” sunk the pride of the russian black sea fleet the Moskva near Ukraine, with any luck there is soon a new artificial reefs for the scuba crowd: The Great Goshkov Reef

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:

    The propensity for South African diplomats to make idiotic statements is only outshone by the ability of DIRCO to kowtow. This is an impressive feat when one considers the general lack of athletic ability on the parts of most South African officials.

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