Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed his South African counterpart for talks in Pretoria on Monday, in a visit that drew criticism over the war in Ukraine.
A continental power, South Africa has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has resisted taking sides over the war.
The conflict has led to sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow and attempts to leave it diplomatically isolated.
Russia is an ‘important partner’
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor thanked Lavrov for the “most wonderful meeting” after the talks, which she said earlier would have helped “enhance the already good relations” between the two countries.
Sitting next to Moscow’s top diplomat, she described Russia as an “important partner”.
South Africa recently assumed the presidency of the BRICS, a grouping that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China to challenge the hegemonic global governance structures led by the United States and Europe.
It announced last week that it would host a 10-day joint naval exercise with Russia and China off the port of Durban and Richards Bay in February.
But relations with Moscow have drawn criticism in the country, with some accusing the government of abandoning its neutral stance.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia,” said Darren Bregman, MP for the main opposition Democratic Alliance party.
He said “friendly engagement” with Russia was “inappropriate” unless it aimed to persuade it to end its involvement in Ukraine.
Lavrov told a news conference that Russia did not “reject negotiations” with Ukraine.
“But those who refuse must understand that the more they refuse, the more difficult it will be to find a solution,” he said.
Also read: Bilateral talks between South Africa and Russia criticized amid war crimes investigation
Officials in Moscow blamed the closure of diplomatic channels on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not negotiate while Russian President Vladimir Putin is in power.
Despite the public overtures, the Kremlin has so far shown little willingness to moderate its approach on the ground.
Ukrainians protest against the visit
In Pretoria, members of the Ukrainian community in South Africa staged a small protest against the visit, with some waving banners reading “Go home Lavrov” and “Stop the lies! Stop the war”.
Last week, the foundation of the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, called the planned naval exercise “disgraceful” and “amounting to declaring South Africa joining the war against Ukraine”.
Read also: Only 8.5% of Western companies have left Russia – a study
Pandor defended the exercises, saying that they are part of the normal course of relations between countries.
“All countries conduct military exercises with friends,” she said.