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Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, on October 24, 2019.POOL/Reuters

When the leaders of the G7 countries gather in Japan for their annual summit this weekend, a familiar guest will be absent. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has failed to secure an invitation this year, and his absence is widely seen as a deliberate snub to an increasingly pro-Russian leader.

After months of backroom concern about the South African government’s drift into Moscow’s sphere of influence, the West is beginning to go public with its unhappiness. Last week’s dramatic U.S. allegation of a South African arms shipment to Russia grabbed global headlines, but it was just the most visible sign of Western alarm.

A year ago, Mr. Ramaphosa seemed confident that he could balance between the West and the East, despite the close links between Moscow and his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). His office, in a statement last June, boasted that he was “a regular invitee” at summits of the Western-dominated Group of Seven.

As recently as a few weeks ago, he assumed he would be attending the G7 again, and his office was sending invitations to local media to accompany him. And then, abruptly, Japan announced that the only African guest at the summit would be Azali Assoumani, the president of tiny Comoros, who holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union this year.

Japan has given no explanation, except to mention Mr. Assoumani’s AU role. But most observers see it as a sign of the G7′s growing discomfort with the warm friendship between the ANC government and the Kremlin.

As one of the biggest and most diplomatically powerful countries on the African continent, South Africa would be a valuable prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin in his campaign to show that Western sanctions have failed to isolate him. He has courted Mr. Ramaphosa assiduously, and the campaign appears to be succeeding.

Mr. Putin’s top officials have been regularly welcomed in Pretoria. His warships were allowed to cruise through South African harbours and hold naval drills in the country on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And late last month, a Russian cargo plane – owned by an airline under U.S. sanctions because of its links to arms shipments – was allowed to slip quietly into a South African air base, carrying what was officially described as “diplomatic mail.”

When a Russian cargo ship arrived at the South African naval base of Simon’s Town in early December and allegedly took weapons and ammunition on board under cover of darkness, Washington raised its concerns in diplomatic channels for months. When those messages were largely ignored, U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety went public last week, triggering a major diplomatic rift between the two countries.

While the arms shipment was the most sensational allegation, Mr. Brigety had other grievances as well. He cited a resolution approved by the ANC at its latest conference, in December, that echoed Russian propaganda on the war in Ukraine. It accused the United States of “provoking” the war in an effort “to put Russia in its place” and claimed that U.S.-led “expansionist military strategies” were intended to create “Western imperialist dominance over Eastern Europe.”

Mr. Brigety described it as an “outrageous, false” statement – the most “hostile” the ANC has ever made against the U.S.

But the ANC’s links to Moscow are increasingly clear. A mining company owned by a Russian billionaire in partnership with ANC companies is one of the party’s biggest donors and was the main sponsor of its December conference. The ANC also sent a high-level delegation to Moscow in early April for meetings with the ruling United Russia party to discuss what it called the “recalibration of the global order.”

At an ANC meeting on the weekend, delegates cheered loudly when Mr. Ramaphosa told them he had spoken to Mr. Putin by phone Friday.

One faction of the ANC, unofficially led by former president Jacob Zuma, is even more vociferously pro-Russia. His daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, pumps out a heavy volume of social media posts in support of Mr. Putin, whom she describes as “My President.” A recent study by the London-based Centre for Information Resilience concluded that she was the main amplifier of an extensive pro-Putin publicity campaign in South Africa.

Business groups have voiced concern that the ANC government’s links to Moscow could trigger the cancellation of South Africa’s trade concessions from the U.S. government. To ease those concerns, the government sent a delegation to Washington this month to meet a range of U.S. officials and politicians – some of whom asked about the Russian cargo ship’s visit.

In a statement Monday, Mr. Ramaphosa denied that his government is favouring either side of the Ukraine war. “South Africa has not been, and will not be, drawn into a contest between global powers,” he said.

But within hours of his statement, Russia’s Defence Ministry disclosed that the commander of South Africa’s ground forces, Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha, had arrived in Moscow to discuss “military co-operation” and “improving the combat readiness of the armed forces of both countries.”

South Africa’s military, which had not mentioned the visit until Russian media disclosed it, later insisted it had been planned “well in advance.” But the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said it was further evidence that the government “clearly and unashamedly demonstrates its support for Russia.”

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