A South African Scandal Could Shake up Relations With Washington
Do South Africa’s denials that it supplied weapons to Russia ring true?
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack here, wishing everyone a happy springtime Thursday. Enjoy it while it lasts, Washingtonians; mosquito season is nearly upon us.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: The fallout from alleged South African arms shipments to Russia, a top Biden Pentagon official is slated to leave his job, pressure mounts to send Ukraine F-16s, and more.
U.S. Ties With South Africa Going South, and Fast
The U.S. ambassador to South Africa kicked up a diplomatic storm when he declared that the United States had intelligence that weapons were being covertly shipped from a South African port bound for Russia.
Up in arms over arms. That claim led to a heated swirl of accusations and counter-accusations, followed by vehement denials from South African government spokespeople, a vow by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch an investigation into the matter, and vague statements from Washington that left more questions than answers.
Global south calling. The whole saga showcased how seriously the United States and its Western allies take the prospect of any countries around the world offering support to Russia as war rages in Ukraine—while Ukraine itself works to make inroads in the global south to blunt Moscow’s influence.
It also highlights how the U.S.-South Africa relationship—once viewed as a linchpin of U.S. engagement across the continent—seems to be teetering on the brink of a massive upheaval.
The U.S. ambassador to Pretoria, Reuben Brigety, said he would “bet [his] life” on the accuracy of the U.S. intelligence on the matter, despite the fierce backlash from the South African government.
That broadly leaves three options.
Pick one of three doors. The first scenario is that the U.S. intelligence is wrong. Current and former U.S. officials who have spoken to SitRep say that is highly unlikely, given Brigety’s reputation as a straight shooter who wouldn’t go out on such a far limb without serious evidence to back it up, but it’s hard to independently verify claims stemming from classified intelligence. And, of course, U.S. intelligence has gotten things wrong before.
Second, the South African government secretly and knowingly supplied weapons to Russia, brazenly defying Western sanctions and undercutting its supposedly neutral position on the war. Again, this is a charge that the South African government denies.
Third, the arms shipment was arranged without the government’s knowledge—a not unlikely possibility given the rampant levels of corruption and dysfunction gripping the South African government today. (One data point to consider: Viktor Vekselberg, a wealthy Russian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin who is under U.S. sanctions, is reportedly a major donor to South Africa’s ruling party.)
Things are getting tense. Even if there’s no answer yet to which of these three options is right, South Africa’s deepening relationship with Russia and continued stance on the war in Ukraine have drawn intense scrutiny in the West.
South Africa agreed to joint military exercises with Russia and China this February—exercises that coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, even as this scandal rages, South Africa’s army chief visited Moscow this week in a meeting that the South African government insists was “planned well in advance” and part of a “goodwill visit” at the Russian military’s invitation. Regardless of how well in advance the trip was planned, the optics are less than great in the eyes of policymakers in Washington and European capitals.
A peace mission? Meanwhile, as its militaries cozy up, South Africa is part of a new diplomatic initiative with other African powers to try to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. The leaders of South Africa, Zambia, Senegal, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Egypt plan to travel to Moscow and Kyiv to meet separately with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss pathways to end the war. Most experts believe Russia has no interest in backing down from its fight, and Ukraine is reportedly in the beginnings of a major counteroffensive.
Every relationship has a history. South Africa has always maintained close ties with Russia, both as a fellow member of the BRICS bloc of emerging powerhouse economies and during Moscow’s efforts to support the anti-apartheid movement that finally ended the country’s brutal apartheid regime in 1994. Those ties go deep, as a “large number of cadres from the African National Congress or ANC (formerly an anti-apartheid organization, now the ruling party of South Africa) went to Moscow for military training during the apartheid era, chiefly in sabotage work,” as Stephen Chan, a renowned scholar on African affairs at SOAS, University of London, wrote in The Conversation. The United States, meanwhile, offered diplomatic support to the apartheid regime during much of the Cold War, including watering down U.N. sanctions in the 1960s and 1970s—a fact not forgotten by many in the ANC.
(It’s worth noting that Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union that provided so much support to the ANC during the Cold War.)
Mounting pressure from Western countries for South Africa to rethink its ties with Moscow haven’t paid off so far, even as fresh evidence of war crimes and possibly genocide by Russian forces in Ukraine piles up. That has only heightened tensions between Washington and Pretoria.
Is this the final straw? The whole saga could lead to a radical rethink in how Washington views its ties with South Africa going forward. “It’s long past time to stop romanticizing U.S.-South Africa relations, or pretending that a one-sided enthusiasm for cooperation with the South African government is a critical linchpin in U.S.-Africa policy,” Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a new piece for the think tank this week. (Gavin is a veteran of the Obama administration National Security Council and a former ambassador to Botswana.) “Over and over, South African words and deeds demonstrate that what would seem to be fertile ground of shared interests and values in democratic societies is, for the time being, a mirage.”
Let’s Get Personnel
The U.S. Department of Defense’s top policy official is set to leave the building this summer, NBC News first reported and the Pentagon later confirmed. Colin Kahl, who survived a bruising confirmation fight in 2021 as Republicans chided him for his past involvement in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, was on a leave of absence from Stanford University for two years but will stay on at the Pentagon through the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.
NBC reports that Mara Karlin, the Pentagon’s top strategy guru, is one possible candidate to replace Kahl.
A senior German diplomat, Boris Ruge, will become the next NATO assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy.
Amy Pope, a former White House advisor, won a vote to lead the International Organization for Migration, the U.N.’s top migration agency, this week. Pope will be the first woman to lead the organization and serve a five-year term.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is eyeing plans to tap former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro as the new U.S. envoy for the Abraham Accords, as Axios reports.
It’s old news, but since it ran late last week, after SitRep went out, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman announced her retirement from public service, effective June 30. Sherman announced her retirement shortly after a Reuters article hit the press that was critical of State Department delays to sanctions and export controls seen as harmful to U.S.-China relations.
Republican Rep. Mike Waltz has named Andrew Peek as his new national security advisor. Peek is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and previously worked as a former Trump administration State Department and National Security Council staffer.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Battle buddies. Britain and the Netherlands are building out an international coalition that aims to help Ukraine obtain F-16 fighter jets, the fourth-generation American-made variant that has been at the top of Kyiv’s wish list for the better part of 2023. The NATO allies are hoping to direct F-16s to Ukraine as more Western countries obtain F-35 fighter jets, and to train Ukrainian pilots to fly them. Just one hurdle: U.S. President Joe Biden said earlier this year that Ukraine did not need the fighter jets, and the deliveries would require American approval.
Charm offensive. Ukraine is set to massively upgrade its diplomatic presence in the global south, we reported this week, opening 10 embassies in Africa and more in the Middle East and Asia in an effort to deal a blow to Russia’s strength in the region. The plan would see Ukraine tap new ambassadors or open new embassies in nearly two dozen countries, from Ghana to the Philippines, as well as further afield, such as in Guatemala. And Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has taken a novel approach to recruiting: Posting the jobs online for anyone to apply.
Hold my calls. Biden is curtailing his trip to Asia that was set to see him travel to Australia and Papua New Guinea as Washington waits with bated breath for U.S. officials and lawmakers to haggle out a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Biden is now set to leave Asia on Sunday, after the G-7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, that will focus on Western responses to China’s economic coercion. But importantly, now off the schedule is a planned in-person meeting of the “Quad” countries of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan.
Put On Your Radar
Today: Biden is on a three-day visit to Japan for the G-7 summit.
Friday, May 19: Saudi Arabia plays host for the Arab League summit. Airman Jack Teixeira, charged with leaking hundreds of top-secret Pentagon documents on a Discord gaming server, faces a hearing.
Sunday, May 21: European leaders are on the move in Asia after the G-7: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will head to South Korea, while French President Emmanuel Macron pays a visit to Mongolia.
Quote of the Week
“I don’t care.”
—Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit this week, when asked how Russia would react to NATO giving security guarantees to Ukraine. He said it was “dangerous if we give in to threats from Putin,” including nuclear threats.
This Week’s Most Read
- Why Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Has Egypt up in Arms by Sara Khorshid
- Russia’s Convict-Soldiers Have Their Own Brutal Rules by Kristaps Andrejsons
- Russian Guerrillas Are Trying to Violently Overthrow Putin by Anchal Vohra
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
The daily grind. Jobs can be stressful and difficult. Even more so if you’re a professional Loch Ness monster hunter, as the BBC reports.
Not a laughing matter. Chinese authorities fined a comedy troupe $2 million for making a joke about the military.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Join the Conversation
Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.
Already a subscriber?.
Join the Conversation
Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.
Not your account?
Join the Conversation
Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.