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Exercise in obscenity: South Africa only helps Vladimir Putin by hosting naval drills off Durban

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    Nat Quinn

    The very last thing the South African military should be doing is celebrating with some military training and cooperation with the Russian Navy on the very anniversary of the launch of a Russian invasion of a neighbouring state.


    ‘In this Traffick they would frequently keep our goods and make no return, till at last I was obliged to fire a musket ball close past one man who had served us in this manner after which they observed a little more honesty, and, at length, several of them came on board.”
    — Captain James Cook in The Hunt for the Southern Continent.
    “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
    — Cartoon character Pogo, by way of his creator, Walt Kelly.
    Back when Britain ruled the waves, or so it was said and sung about (He is an Englishman — Australian version), there was an implicit understanding that an occasional bit of adroit gunboat diplomacy was just the thing to keep order on an unruly planet — and make other nations tremble at the baleful possibilities of much worse if they didn’t snap to, right smartly.
    Recall, for a moment, how a small squadron of British naval vessels cowed the Omani sheikh who ruled Zanzibar into a very quick surrender and acceptance of British overlordship, after just a few perfunctory shells had been fired at the town’s fortifications.
    Force projection
    Nowadays, of course, we might prefer to label similar things as force projection rather than gunboat diplomacy, but there is still much in common between them.
    Rather than firing a few rounds from a naval vessel on patrol, nowadays it is more usual to make use of an aircraft carrier strike force — if one happens to have one handy — and to send it steaming towards a trouble spot at flank speed.
    Then, carrier-launched jet fighter-bombers will very visibly be sent off to fly around at supersonic speed to let the other guys know what could be in the offing, Top Gun style, if those annoying tensions don’t get tamped down quickly. Such activity is meant as anything but secret.
    In fact, the planning divisions of major military powers’ defence establishments usually have such operations worked out in detail for almost any conceivable eventuality, pretty much anywhere on the planet.
    (Putting out some historical trivia readers can use at their next dinner party: besides battle plans against the usual potential enemies like Japan, back in the 1920s the US military even had an operational plan worked out to blockade and then invade Canada, in the event the US and Britain came to blows for reasons that would be unfathomable nowadays.)
    Showing the flag
    Another frequent version of putting maritime forces to work, beyond their obvious role in actual combat operations, is what is often referred to as “showing the flag”.
    In such cases, there is no real intention to engage in or even signal possible hostile action. Instead, there is the idea that the presence of a naval vessel or two or three or even a whole flotilla of them, if possible, would demonstrate the immense power and majesty of the country operating such “goodwill voyages” and “port calls” — thereby showing concretely the peaceful intentions of the owner of those vessels, right along with their power.
    When Theodore Roosevelt was the American president back at the beginning of the 20th century, he sent the country’s shiny, new, modern fleet — a country still basking in its earlier victory over the doddering Spanish empire — to tour the globe.
    The ships were nicknamed the “Great White Fleet”, resplendent as they were with their white paint and polished guns, rails and stanchions. That voyage had been one of showing the flag — a worldwide announcement of the arrival of the newest global power with the military toys to match, without firing a shot.
    That voyage could be seen in comparison to the heroic but doomed journey of the Russian Fleet, sailing at great speed from its usual European berths, all the way around Africa and on to annihilation by a Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Strait during Russia’s disastrous 1905 war with that island nation.
    In this case, Japan’s victory at sea and then on land had similarly announced the arrival of another new military power.
    More usually, as part of showing the flag in peaceable times, port calls will involve a schedule of public gestures. There will be demonstration sports matches between teams from the ships’ crews and the host nation; a detachment of sailors will volunteer to paint an orphanage or primary school; band concerts will take place in port; carefully escorted VIP and everyday citizens will be given tours of the ship or ships; and then there will be the inevitable outdoor reception under temporary marques, showing off the culinary talents of the ships’ mess crew, and a toast or two to everlasting friendship between the two sides.
    The media loves this kind of thing.
    There is much activity to observe, and everybody gets to have a good time. And, of course, the local pubs are especially grateful for the extra business those thirsty sailors wandering around on shore leave will generate when they are not on duty.
    These are some of the practical benefits such ship visits can generate.
    Joint drills
    South African Navy corvettes built by German company Thyssen Krupp at anchor in Simon’s Town. (Photo: Supplied)
    When there are joint exercises with the host country’s forces as well, for maritime forces, these can come through the working out of interoperability regimens between different naval cultures, and training cooperation to be determined in advance of having to deploy together on things like anti-piracy patrols or humanitarian and disaster relief in the event of famines, floods, tsunamis and earthquakes.
    For joint exercises between different nations’ ground forces, there is the need to be prepared to cooperate on disaster relief as well — or in the eventuality of a joint deployment in a peacemaking or peacekeeping operation.
    Such exercises allow for the respective forces’ commanders to understand better the capabilities and limitations of the respective militaries. (Between formal allies, of course, such training efforts are a key element of an alliance structure and they often take place in accordance as part of routine, annual schedules.)
    Often, in such exercises, only small contingents of forces actually carry out joint training in operations in the field. Instead, there are very detailed “table top exercises” — something like a cross between hi-tech versions of Risk and those battlefield simulations so popular with electronic gamers.
    Such efforts ensure the respective command structures know how to act in coordinated ways in the middle of combat or near-combat — before they have to do so for real.
    But in the case of navies, it is those big, grey-painted ships that count.
    South African President Thabo Mbeki (L) waves to the fleet onboard the South African Navy vessel SAS Protea during the Presidential Fleet Review in Simonstown, South Africa 05 September 2008. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
    They are not off training somewhere in some isolated wilderness, and after they steam around on the water in their drills, they come into port. There is no way to avoid seeing them on the horizon (or in the news broadcasts of officially sanctioned video images of the exercises), and then even more so once they are in a harbour.
    That is the point of the whole thing, after all. Ships send a really concrete signal no one can miss. It is a signal of power, potential, potency and/or provocativeness, as we see planned for this three-country exercise.
    Exercise in obscenity
    Right here is where we encounter the nub of the day’s lesson. That, of course, is the astonishing, even appalling, announcement that South Africa will be engaged in joint naval exercises with China and Russia in the Indian Ocean between 17 and 27 February.
    The obscenity of this is hard to overstate.
    On the off-chance that nobody in the South African government managed to notice the date, 24 February marks the beginning of the Russian invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine.
    The very last thing the South African military should be doing on that day is celebrating with some military training and cooperation with the Russian navy on the very anniversary of the launch of a Russian invasion of a neighbouring state. (We can grant the Chinese a pass on this one, this time. At least this joint naval exercise is not taking place on the anniversary of China’s deadly 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstration in Beijing, or China’s violent crushing of more recent freedom of expression protests in Hong Kong.
    For nearly a year, the South African government has bloviated on about its sacred neutrality — and simultaneous warm friendship with its BRICS partner, Russia — in the face of an ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
    As the invasion progressed, it has included massive, deadly attacks on civilian Ukrainian settlements — apartment blocks, schools, hospitals and other such facilities, along with the country’s transportation, water and energy infrastructure.
    Human rights violations
    Then there have been the increasingly well-documented descriptions of violations of the human rights of Ukrainian civilians. These have included torture, summary executions and imprisonment of Ukrainians in cities and towns that have come under Russian occupation — either temporarily or, so far, permanently.
    Given this recent record, what conceivable skills South Africans expect to learn from Russia through a military joint exercise is mind boggling.
    Never mind that this exercise takes place thousands of kilometres from Russia’s normal fleet operations.
    In explaining this activity, the SANDF says the exercise is “with an aim of sharing operational skills and knowledge. While Exercise Mosi  will be conducted in the southern oceans over the said period, it will coincide with the Armed Forces Day celebration that will take place at uMhlathuze Municipality in Richards Bay, east of KwaZulu-Natal province.”
    But it actually seems to be part of a larger effort binding South Africa to Russia that can include the visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and South Africa’s hosting of the BRICS summit this year.
    Throughout all the death and destruction in Ukraine, not a word of condemnation — or even a gentle cautionary frown or quiet pursing of official lips — has come forth from South African officials about such behaviour.
    Boosting the Moscow narrative
    Moreover, there has been scant shaking of official heads about ongoing efforts by Russia to prevent Ukrainian exports of grain to a hard-pressed world (including African and Middle Eastern purchasers and international bodies that provide emergency foodstuffs to refugees and famine victims), thereby generating a major price rise of agricultural commodities.
    south africa russiaLady R, a Russian cargo vessel in Simon’s Town harbour on 6 December 2022. (Photo: Supplied)
    This act of staying shtum about things that might be embarrassing was even extended to any comment about the recent, mysterious berthing in Simon’s Town naval facilities of a Russian freighter listed under the multinational sanctions regimen, and its equally mysterious loading and unloading of cargo at night.
    In view of the concurrence of this planned naval exercise with Russia (and China) with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the very least the South African government could have done would have been to indicate quietly (or loudly, if they had had the courage to do so) that this joint exercise is now scheduled to be taking place at an inappropriate time for such festivities, given the military circumstances in Ukraine.
    The fact that they have not done so, and the confluence of visits and meetings and this exercise, can only contribute to the conclusion that this is a kind of provocative showing of the flag by the Russians and an upraised middle finger to the world about its military posture.
    Steven Gruzd, the head of the Russia-Africa programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, noted, “Russia is trying to indicate that it’s not isolated internationally; that it has international military reach.
    “And South Africa, by agreeing to hold these exercises, or going ahead with them, is feeding into that narrative that Moscow’s putting out.”
    In the meantime, the Chinese get to come along for the ride and they will get a ringside seat to evaluate the capabilities of the Russian navy in actual operations far from home.


    Exercise in obscenity: South Africa only helps Vladimir… (dailymaverick.co.za)

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