The Russian Federation Navy missile cruiser Marshall Ustinov is expected in Cape Town on Saturday.Durban – There’s an increased Russian military presence and influence extending across the continent of Africa right now, one which remains largely below the radar and has received little attention in the public arena.
Almost all African nations are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, yet across the continent is to be found a variety of military activities involving several non-African forces.
This comes to mind with the imminent arrival in South Africa of naval ships from the Russian Federation and Chinese navies.
There are also US armed forces in the form of Africom (US Africa Command) that remains headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, but involves a significant presence of US armed forces in one guise or another on African soil and involved in regional conflicts.
Africa hosts a number of other nations such as France and the UK in their regional conflicts, raising questions against claims of “Africa for the Africans”.
Even China today has its first naval base on the continent, at Djibouti, where interestingly the naval base is in the same neighbourhood as Camp Lemonnier, a former garrison of the French Foreign Legion and now housing the US Naval Expeditionary Base or Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa to affix its official title.
This is the only “official” US military base in Africa (there are several other unofficial “facilities” elsewhere). Camp Lemonnier is on one side of the international airport, from which it undertakes aerial operations in the Persian Gulf region. Camp Lemonnier is also the US base from where aerial drones operate over Yemen and Somalia.
Meanwhile several other nations also make use of Djibouti, including France and Japan, raising questions for Pan-African ideals of excluding foreign powers from the continent.
Just Africom elements, including a ship of the US Coast Guard, recently concluded naval training and joint exercises with several West African countries.
In southern Africa there is an increasing Russian presence in neighbouring Mozambique, which is further backed up with promises of military aid for Mozambique offered by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
This is not mere military equipment – the secretive Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary force is already active in the country and not only to “advise” Mozambican security personnel but to take an active part in suppressing a rising terror group in the north of the country in the area of the little port of Palma and also Mocimboa da Praia, which has been earmarked as a landing place for equipment and stores for the emerging oil and gas industry.
Note that this is the region where the Mozambique Gas Development Project, reputed to be the world’s largest known reservoir of natural gas, which is only now beginning to come into production offshore in the Rovuma Basin and on land.
It is in this area that seven Wagner operatives died gruesomely in an ambush on October 31 along with 20 Mozambican troops. All were executed in the style of ISIS.
The Wagner Group is styled along similar lines to the former South African Executive Outcomes organisation whose founder and former leader presented lectures to a St Petersburg economic forum at which Russian general staff were present.
The Wagner Group maintains a presence in a number of African countries, with offices in many more, and is deeply involved in the military situation in various regions. Closer to home there are a reported 1000 Wagner Group operatives in the DRC, a country where Putin has again promised aid.
That’s the same country where South Africa has soldiers on active UN peacekeeping duty, but you’ll find thousands of Wagner people in numerous African states wherever there is political strife.
Back home we had the unexpected visit, for the first time, of two supersonic Russian Tu160 Blackjack bombers. Just a test flight, was the explanation.
Now we have news of a Russian Federation Navy flotilla due to arrive in the Cape in about a week’s time.
These ships will be joining at least one naval ship of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) and will take part in a naval exercise called “Mosi” off the South African coast, which naturally involves several ships of the SA Navy.
Ordinarily South Africa would have been conducting a regular naval exercise with the French Navy (Operation Oxide) and another with the German Navy (Operation Good Hope) – these are long-standing regular affairs, but this year they have been rescheduled for 2020 and 2022, respectively.
Spearheading the Russian ships is the Slava-class missile cruiser Marshall Ustinov, named after a former Soviet minister of defence. This vessel was laid down in 1978, launched in 1982 and commissioned four years later and is now part of Russia’s Northern Fleet. The ship is a smaller type of cruiser compared with other cruisers in the Russian fleet but nevertheless carries an impressive array of weapons and missiles. Accompanying the cruiser is the Project Sliva-class sea rescue tug SB406, which was commissioned into service in 1984. Another support ship is the replenishment tanker Vyazma.
An unusual and somewhat surprising inclusion in the exercise from the Russian Federation is the 12700-gt ice breaker Akademik Tryoschnikov, which is 134 metres in length with a width of 23m. The diesel-electric powered ice breaker from the Russian polar research fleet was built in 2012.
In addition, China is sending one of its frigates, Weifang (pennant number 550) to take part in this first ever joint exercise involving the three navies. Weifang is one of the growing number of 054A -type, Jiangkai II class frigates and was built in 2013.
Displacing 4200 tons she is based with the Chinese Northern fleet and has visited South Africa previously.
The various ships will begin congregating in Cape Town harbour from later this week.
Joining them in Cape Town are the SA Navy frigate SAS Amatola, the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg, with possibly other smaller vessels taking part in the actual exercise.
Exercise Mosi is due to take place at the end of the month and in advance ships from the Russian and Chinese navies will arrive at Simon’s Town with a visit also to Cape Town – arriving in the city on Saturday.