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Russian roll-on/roll-off container carrier 'Lady R' docks at Simon's Town Naval Base, reportedly carrying ammunition for the South African military, in Cape Town, South Africa, December 7, 2022.ESA ALEXANDER/Reuters

Late next month, two Russian warships will sail into South African waters, near the cities of Durban and Richards Bay, to practise their gunnery, force protection and air defence skills.

The naval deployment on the southern coast of Africa will be a vivid reminder of Moscow’s expanding influence on a continent that is increasingly crucial to its global strategy. This is a big year for the Russian charm offensive in Africa, with political summits, diplomatic visits and military exercises on the agenda.

The naval drills in late February are just one element of the plan, in which South Africa is emerging as one of Moscow’s most loyal partners.

The Russian warships are scheduled to join South African and Chinese ships in a joint military exercise, code-named Mosi (“smoke”), from Feb. 17 to 26. Hundreds of military personnel will participate.

South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, described the exercise as a government attempt to curry favour with the Kremlin. Its defence critic, Kobus Marais, said it “confirms without doubt the South African government’s support to Russia for their illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

The government, however, has repeatedly made clear that it will not be influenced by Western sanctions on Russia, including those on Russian oligarchs and ships.

In October, it announced it would allow Russian steel magnate Alexey Mordashov to sail his US$500-million superyacht into Cape Town’s harbour, even though Mr. Mordashov is under sanctions imposed by the United States, Britain and the European Union. The 142-metre yacht was reportedly heading for Cape Town at the time, although it later changed course.

Last month, Pretoria allowed a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, to dock at a naval base near Cape Town and unload a shipment of goods – reportedly ammunition for the South African military – even though the vessel was under U.S. sanctions for its role in supplying the Russian military after the invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. embassy had alerted South Africa to the likely arrival of the sanctioned vessel but received no response. The ship docked at the naval base late at night on Dec. 6, with its automatic identification system switched off, reportedly citing an emergency situation. Within 48 hours it had unloaded its cargo onto heavily guarded South African trucks under the cover of darkness. The ship also loaded new cargo before leaving the naval base, according to media reports, but the contents of the containers are unknown.

For the next two weeks, the government refused to answer questions about the Russian ship. Critics said the episode was suspicious. “If this was all above board and the SA government is happy to defend it, why the secrecy and lies?” asked Darren Olivier, a South African defence analyst, in a tweet last month.

Defence Minister Thandi Modise, talking to journalists later, complained that the United States “threatens” Africa for “anything that is even smelling of Russia.”

In addition to hosting the Russian warships, South Africa will also welcome a high-level Russian delegation in August at the annual BRICS summit – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. President Vladimir Putin will be invited, although he rarely travels outside his homeland these days.

South Africa holds the presidency of the BRICS group this year, a post it will use to expand its relations with Russia and other member states. President Cyril Ramaphosa said he will invite other African leaders to attend the summit.

In July, many of Africa’s top leaders will travel to Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, for a Russia-Africa summit – the first since 2019. It will be another opportunity for Mr. Putin to cultivate his connections with the continent’s presidents and prime ministers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, is planning to visit eight African countries over the next two months to boost relations and prepare for the Africa-Russia summit.

Moscow is also expanding its network of “Russia Houses” across Africa. The Russian language and culture centres were opened last year in Sudan, Mali, Egypt and Algeria, with Angola expected to be next. Russia recently announced that it is doubling the number of spaces in Russian universities for African students.

The connections go beyond diplomacy and military exercises. On the ground, in African countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic, Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group are taking an increasingly dominant role in fighting rebels and boosting the firepower of national armies. And there are reports that the Wagner Group may be close to securing a new client: the military regime in Burkina Faso, which took power in a coup last year.

In October, a senior U.S. diplomat said the newly installed military junta had assured her that it had no intention of recruiting the Wagner Group. But in recent weeks there have been signs that the regime will abandon that pledge.

Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, alleged last month that Burkina Faso’s regime had reached an agreement with the Wagner Group to deploy its troops in the country. Burkina Faso denied this, but many analysts say an agreement is likely.

Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyelem de Tambela, visited Moscow last month and, according to Russia, agreed that the two countries should “consolidate” their efforts against terrorism. His delegation included several senior military officers.

Shortly after that, the junta asked France – which has sharply criticized the Wagner Group – to withdraw its ambassador from Burkina Faso.