The United States talks South Africa into dissuading it from arming Russia

Joe Biden’s administration is seeking to downplay a row with South Africa over allegations that Pretoria supplied secret weapons to Russia, signaling a desire to discuss the dispute in person to avoid further damage to their relationship.

In a break with diplomatic protocol, the US ambassador to South Africa this month claimed that weapons had been placed on a sanctioned Russian ship under the cover of darkness at a Cape Town naval base last December, later adding that he would “bet my life” on it.

His accusation reflected Washington’s deep frustration with South Africa’s publicly supportive stance toward Moscow. Russia has strong ties to the ruling African National Congress, which was supported by the Soviet Union when it was in exile during the apartheid era.

But many in the US administration worry that publicly reprimanding or punishing supposedly non-aligned countries such as South Africa for their ties to Russia threatens to move closer to Moscow.

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Officials declined to comment publicly or privately on the details of U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety’s accusation, saying they were awaiting the outcome of an investigation launched by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. But two people familiar with the administration’s thinking suggested the ambassador had complicated matters by making the allegation public.

Russian container ship Lady R in Cape Town

Russian container ship Lady R in Cape Town in December. South Africa denies supplying weapons to Russia on the sanctioned ship © Esa Alexander/Reuters

South Africa refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, angering the government. But Washington believes Biden also has a relationship with Ramaphosa and that diplomacy is the best way to deal with their strained relationship with their biggest African trading partner.

“Ramaphosa and the South African government have said that the investigation is ongoing and we await the results with interest,” said a US National Security Council official.

Analysts say Congress may still try to force the US government to take a tougher line. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he shared Brigety’s concerns about South Africa’s relations with Moscow.

“The Biden administration should use existing authorities to reassess the scope and extent of our current relationship with the South African government,” he said.

The diplomatic spat over the Russian ship, the Lady R, reflects the delicate path Washington must navigate in trying to convince reluctant members of the “Global South” to support the West’s stance on the war in Ukraine.

Since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the United States has sought to force its traditional strategic partners to at least remain neutral and enforce international sanctions, thereby depriving Vladimir Putin’s regime of the money and weapons it needs to wage war.

In a sign of US appeasement, Brigety said she regretted any misconceptions her comments had created about South Africa.

Ramaphosa has appointed a retired judge to lead the Lady R investigation, but has not yet named the person or finalized the terms of reference for the investigation, his office said this week.

His government has denied that it has sold weapons to Russia and has suggested that if it did happen, it was done by a rogue actor. The government has yet to see concrete evidence of the US claim about the ship, Ramaphosa’s spokesman said this week.

Patrick Gaspard, South Africa’s ambassador from 2013-2016 and now president of the Center for American Progress think tank, said both sides are seeking de-escalation.

“There was a sort of reckoning with the seriousness of what it would mean if there was a real severance of relations between the United States and South Africa, which are incredibly important allies,” he said.

“There are still serious problems here, but we will deal with these issues through the diplomatic table.”

But deep-seated antipathy to the United States remains in the ANC, which has publicly accused Washington of provoking the war in Ukraine. The party’s ties to Russia have strengthened under former South African President Jacob Zuma, who worked closely with Moscow when he was in exile during apartheid.

Zuma, whose government has become notorious for corruption in state agencies, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Russia’s bid to build nuclear power plants in South Africa. The deal was canceled by a South African court order.

“A very significant part of the South African establishment believes that the United States is some kind of antagonist,” said Michelle Gavin, Ralph Bunche, senior fellow for African policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They believe that offsetting US interests is by definition South Africa’s interest.”

South Africa’s main opposition and business leaders have warned that the Lady R controversy could disrupt trade ties with the United States, which are critical to the country’s blackout-hit economy. South Africa exported more than $15 billion worth of goods to the United States in 2021 under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides tariff exemptions for some nations.