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SA army chief visits Moscow for talks about military cooperation

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    Nat Quinn

    Amid a crisis in relations with the US over South Africa’s growing relations with Russia, head of the SA army Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha is visiting Moscow for talks on ‘improving combat readiness’, according to Russia’s defence ministry, citing TASS, the state-run news agency.

    Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha is meeting, among others, his Russian counterpart Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov. The timing, if not the mission of Mbatha’s visit, seems likely to blow another hole in Pretoria’s claim to be non-aligned in the stand-off between Russia and the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
    The two military chiefs discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction aimed at the implementation of projects aimed at improving the combat readiness of the armed forces of both countries,” TASS quoted Russia’s Defence Ministry as saying.
    The Russians appeared to be maximising the strategic character of the visit, possibly to embarrass the US and the West. The SANDF, by contrast, tried to play down the significance – and the timing – of what it called a “goodwill” visit, saying it was a “long standing arrangement… planned well in advance.”
    It said Mbatha would visit the “higher combined Army Academy and the Artillery Military Academy” and would have staff talks with military officials. “It must be noted that South Africa has Military to Military bilateral relations with various countries in the continent and beyond,” the SANDF said.
    Lady R uproar
    The visit comes just days after a major diplomatic row erupted between South Africa and the US when US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety, told journalists he was confident South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition bound for Russia on to a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, in Simon’s Town naval base in December 2022.
    President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi has just returned from a mission to Washington to try to persuade the US that SA remains non-aligned on the war in Ukraine, and to try to pre-empt possible economic sanctions by the US.
    DA defence spokesperson Kobus Marais said Mbatha’s mission to Moscow “once again demonstrates the ANC government’s callousness and insensitivity to our diplomatic and trade dilemma. This unsolicited visit is the latest incident in a string where the South African government clearly and unashamedly demonstrates its support for Russia.
    “Even after the collapse of the rand and the call from the United States to honour relationships they still went ahead and conducted this visit. It is shameful,” he said in a statement.
    Marais called on Defence Minister Thandi Modise “to address South Africans and explain to the country what exactly the purpose of this visit – paid by the taxpayer – is?”
    Marais added that in his weekly newsletter on Monday, Ramaphosa had once again asserted that South Africa was “non-aligned” in the Ukraine conflict.
    “Yet again, he has lied to South Africa and the world,” Marais said. “I am quite sure that had the Russian media not reported on this visit, it would have been hidden from the South African public. Like so many other events and instances where the ANC government had tried to hide and obfuscate their own embarrassing and disgusting conduct.”
    Mbatha’s visit – poorly timed to say the least – seems likely to put Pretoria on the back foot again in its spat with the US over Brigety’s remarks about the alleged loading of weapons for Russia on to the Lady R. It was only after he went public with these allegations that Ramaphosa announced that he would appoint a retired judge to investigate the allegations.
    Arms sales to Russia
    The government has insisted that it did not authorise any arms sales to Russia, meaning that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) had not approved any exports. This appeared to leave open the possibility that arms might have been loaded on to the Lady R in a rogue operation.
    However, the records of the NCACC do in fact indicate that some exports of arms to Russia have been approved by the NCACC.
    Replying to questions in Parliament from DA leader John Steenhuisen in November last year, Mondli Gungubele, the minister in the presidency who also chairs the NCACC said:
    “The National Conventional Arms Control Committee has not received any request from any South African arms manufacturers for permission to export to the Russian Federation and/or Belarus arms, munitions, propellants and/or technology that may be used in the manufacture of the specified products since 24 February 2022.”
    But then he noted that the records of the NCACC over the past five years reflected that the committee had approved three consignments of “airborne observation” equipment to Russia in 2018, worth a total of R6,690,000. And in July 2019 the NCACC approved the sale to Russia of “Argos Observation” equipment valued at R59,178,602.
    This appears to refer to the Argos-II Airborne Observation System manufactured by the South African company Hensoldt which says it is designed for installation on helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles to provide surveillance and targeting capabilities for military, border and maritime patrol and law enforcement missions.
    Although this authorisation for the Argos system was granted over three years before the Lady R docked in Simon’s Town, it is theoretically possible that it might still have been used as the approval for uploading military equipment on to the Russian ship. Modise told journalists in December that the cargo offloaded from Russian ship Lady R in Simons Town was an “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the Special Forces”.

    Background to the Lady R in SA

    Modise declined to elaborate, saying she was “waiting for the paperwork.” But it appears she was referring to two NCACC authorisations for imports of ammunition from Russia; one for five million rounds of ammunition costing R11,685,807, cited in the 2019 NCACC report and another for 4,500,000 rounds of ammunition costing R9,945,000, cited in the 2020 report.
    This means that if, by Modise’s own account, the Lady R was carrying Russian ammunition for SA approved in 2019 and 2020, it could also, in theory, have uploaded the Argos airborne observation equipment, also approved in 2019.
    But it is by no means clear that the Argos equipment was in fact loaded on to the Lady R and that does not in any case seem to tally completely with Brigety’s statement that the US has intelligence that “weapons and ammunition” were loaded on to the ship.
    source:SA army chief visits Moscow for talks about military co… (dailymaverick.co.za)
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