South Africa risks backlash for Russian naval exercises, but its history with Moscow runs deep

Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov docks in Durban, South Africa, en route to scheduled naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies.

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN)As the anniversary of Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine approaches, a Russian warship armed with one of Moscow's most powerful weapons pulled into a port on South Africa's east coast this weekend.

The frigate Admiral Gorshkov -- carrying hypersonic Zircon missiles, according to President Putin -- has a "Z" and "V" crudely painted in white on its blackened smokestack, just like the Russian tanks and artillery pieces that rolled into Ukraine a year ago.
It is participating in a 10-day naval exercise in the Indian Ocean alongside South African and Chinese warships, war games that South Africa says have long been planned.
    But the timing of the exercises has Western diplomats privately incensed and publicly critical, and they risk an embarrassing backlash for the government in Pretoria.
      "The timing of these exercises is particularly unfortunate and will focus the world's attention on South Africa during the anniversary of the war. I don't think Western nations are going to let this one slide," said Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
        "It is very disturbing, that South Africa is hosting a military exercise with the country -- an aggressor, invader -- that is using its military force against a peaceful country, bringing destruction and trying to eliminate the Ukrainian Nation," said Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine's ambassador to Southern Africa.
        On the basis of realpolitik alone, freezing out Russia or, at the very least, postponing the naval exercises, may have seemed like a smarter choice.
          Ukraine's biggest supporters, the United States and countries in the European Union, are also big trade partners for South Africa.
          European Union and US two-way trade with South Africa outstrips Russian economic ties many times over. And though Russia promises more trade deals, its battered economy is unlikely to provide the direct investment that South Africa desperately needs.
          South African officials also point to drills held with the French and US militaries in recent years.
          Protesters demonstrate in Cape Town on February 17, 2023, against South Africa's 10-day routine joint military exercise with Russia and China.

          Cold war allies

          But ties between South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) and Moscow run deep -- and they aren't easily broken.
          "By default, we are on the side of Russia. And to us Ukraine what we call a sell-out. It is selling out to the west," said Obey Mabena, a veteran of the ANC's armed wing in an interview last year with CNN.
          While Mabena doesn't represent the government or the ANC, his sentiment is likely shared by more than a few ANC stalwarts.
          Mabena fled South Africa in the 1970s, like many in his generation, driven out by the police brutality of apartheid South Africa. In exile, many South African youth joined the armed wing of liberation movements like the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress.