RUSSIA can pretty much only boast about being the largest country in terms of land area. Its economy is only the 11th largest in the world, smaller than that of South Korea, just slightly larger than Australia, more in line with the likes of Spain.
On top of that, the war in Ukraine revealed that the Russian military is not as powerful as it claimed. Russia's weak military performance — the war was supposed to be over in a few days, but we're on day 538 — severely undermined the country's status as a global power.
Oh, but Russia is a nuclear power? Well, so are India, Pakistan, France, Britain, Israel, the US and China.
Russia is the source of less than 1% of direct foreign investment in Africa. South Africa's trade with Russia constitutes only 1.7% of that with other Brics countries — we mostly export fruits to Russia, making up 0.2% of our total exports.
President Vladimir Putin's forceful suppression of his critics, his curbing of free speech, and the UN and International Criminal Court's charges of war crimes against him have caused his reputation to wane beyond his immediate sphere and among right-wingers around the world.
His strongman image has also been tarnished by the attempted insurrection by his old friend, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The notion that the military aggression in Ukraine was a fatal mistake that will significantly weaken Russia is reportedly gradually gaining ground within Russia itself.
So, South Africa's “strategic partnership" and camaraderie with Moscow are largely built on sentiment and perhaps a dash of ideology, rather than genuine national interest.
The developments in Niger and surrounding areas have now brought forth an entirely new phase of Russia's relationship with Africa.
There is ample evidence that Wagner actively supports the military junta in Niger that toppled the democratic government in July. There is also a Wagner presence in other African countries with military governments, such as Mali, Chad and Sudan, possibly even Burkina Faso and Guinea.
The commissioner for political affairs, peace and security of Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States), Abdel-Fatau Musah, warned last week that the organisation holds Russia accountable for Wagner's role in Niger and Mali.
Shortly after the coup in Niger, Prigozhin expressed support for the coup on his Telegram channel and offered his soldiers' assistance. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russian flags suddenly appeared in Niger and Mali, with demonstrations welcoming Russia's support for the military regimes.
Prigozhin was prominent at the recent Russia/Africa summit in St Petersburg, pictured meeting various African heads of state and senior officials.
Wagner has been involved in the Central African Republic since 2018, and Prigozhin stated at the St Petersburg summit's press conference that Wagner controls the entire territory of that state.
Wagner's strategy is to militarily support unstable or military governments in exchange for access to gold, diamond and other mines, as well as arms purchases from Russia. International human rights organisations have documented Wagner's brutal treatment of civilians in several in-depth investigations.
Military coups have been a plague afflicting Africa for decades and are strongly condemned by the African Union and regional bodies such as Ecowas.
It is utterly untenable for South Africa, as a leading AU member, to be best friends with a power that supports and encourages coups.
President Cyril Ramaphosa could well take a lesson from his Brics counterparts, India's Narendra Modi and Brazil's Lula da Silva. Both countries have strong historical and trade ties with Russia but have distanced themselves from Putin in recent months, albeit without direct criticism of him.
Modi even told Putin directly in a recent meeting: “Today's era is not an era of war," emphasising that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue unite the world. Modi received a warm reception during his state visit to the US in June.
In February, after meeting President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, Lula declared in a speech that his country condemns Russia's violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Another old friend of Moscow, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, is gradually turning his back on Putin. He has even spoken out in favour of Ukraine's Nato membership, which angered Putin.
In theory, China remains Putin's best partner, but Beijing is playing its own international power game.
Putin was apparently upset when China sent a delegation to a peace conference on Ukraine in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, while Russia was not invited. Forty countries took part in the conference, attended by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.
South Africa, with its relatively small economy, is indeed the junior partner in Brics, but it is still the voice of Africa in this partnership, which makes it more legitimate.
South Africa has invited 67 dignitaries from Africa, Latin America and Asia to the Brics summit in Sandton.
The expansion of Brics' membership is precisely on the agenda. Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Argentina, and 16 other countries have officially applied for membership.
A Brics+ could hold a lot of value for South Africa. However, the ANC's subservience to Moscow undermines South Africa's prestige as a country that deserves a presence on the international stage.
Ramaphosa must assert his authority and ensure that his cabinet and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation determine South Africa's foreign policy, rather than being dictated to by the South African Communist Party, the ANC Youth League or the ANC national executive committee.
♦ VWB ♦
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