Home / Articles / Russia’s Alleged Arms Shipment in South Africa
Public allegations made by the US ambassador to South Africa that arms or related technologies were loaded onto a Russian ship as it was docked at South Africa’s Naval Base Simon’s Town are extremely serious and threaten to derail US-South African relations.
The incident is a puzzle that needs to be solved. In the coming months, the South African government says that it will be investigating what really happened.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of hypotheses, hunches, conjectures, and suppositions being masqueraded as facts. For that reason, casual observers should avoid the hype and resist jumping to any premature conclusions.
Two weeks ago, the US Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, publicly alleged that arms or related technologies were loaded onto a Russian ship, Lady R, as it was docked at Naval Base Simon’s Town. This was a serious cause for concern as the ship was under sanctions from the United States government for “transporting military equipment for the Russian government.” While South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has stressed that there is no evidence that arms or related technologies were loaded onto the ship, the South African government has nonetheless launched a formal investigation into the matter.
Following the public allegations, the Financial Timesreconstructed the itinerary of the Lady R as it circumnavigated the African continent. Their work revealed that the ship stopped in Egypt, Togo, and Cameroon prior to arriving in Simon’s Town. Note, no allegations have been made of arms transfers during those stops. However, there are separate allegations that the Egyptian government recently tried to transfer arms to the Russian government. Their work also revealed that the ship called on ports in Mozambique, Sudan, and Russia after departing Simon’s Town. Now, it appears to be en route to China. This itinerary not only raises the possibility that whatever was loaded onto the ship in Simon’s Town was offloaded prior to the port call in Russia. It also raises the possibility that arms or related technologies are still on the ship.
An arms transfer is a multidimensional phenomenon. These dimensions not only include the actors, their roles, and their intentionality. They also include the shipment and the complexity of the system, among other things. Right now, there is not a lot of good information in the public domain across any of these dimensions. However, the allegation immediately led to fingers being pointed squarely at the South African government and the Russian government by some commentators. Of course, there are well-known ties between the South African government and the Russian government. But, these are not the only actors who were capable of being parties to such a transaction. That is why it is important to establish the context in which the alleged arms transfer occurred.
There are well-known ties between the South African Special Forces and Mozambique. The South African military is engaged in ongoing counter-terrorism and violent extremism operations in Northern Mozambique. These forces include South African Special Forces. They are deployed as part of a wider military intervention by the Southern African Development Community. This intervention includes the Rwandan Defence Force. The situation in Mozambique is a national security priority for the South African government due to their virtually open border. And, the situation in Cabo Delgado Province does not seem to be under control. This is evidenced by the fact that Mozambique’s Defense Minister, Cristovao Chume, asked the South African government to do more to help in their fight against the Islamist insurgency. Note, this request was made only a few months after Lady R departed Simon’s Town en route to Mozambique.
Private Military Contractors
There are well-known ties between Russian private military contractors and many of the stops along the itinerary. According to the Council for Foreign Relations, the Wagner Group is active in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sudan, and it was previously active in Mozambique. It is also involved in Burkina Faso and Mali. However, neither of those countries have seaports. Burkina Faso does share a land border with Togo though.
There are suspected ties between Russian private military contractors, Arab governments, and Arab private military contractors. And, all have participated in armed conflicts along the reported itinerary. In Mozambique, there are allegations that an Emirati private military contractor affiliated with Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater and Frontier Services Group, once sought to collaborate with the Wagner Group. In Sudan, there are allegations that the Wagner Group has made arms transfers to the Rapid Support Forces. There are also allegations that the Rapid Support Forces have been funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, there are allegations that the Emirati government played an active role in what has been framed as a coup attempt by the Rapid Support Forces. That remains disputed. Either way, the Rapid Support Forces have been deployed to Yemen, where its troops have fought alongside Saudi and Emirati forces. And, it is one of the main conflict parties in the 2023 Sudan Civil War. Note, that conflict started only a few months after Lady R departed Sudan.
Outside of Sudan, there are allegations that Arab states have sought to collaborate with the Wagner Group. Famously, the United States Department of Defense alleged that the United Arab Emirates once financed the Wagner Group in Libya. There are also allegations that Emirati private military contractors have collaborated with Wagner Group in a number of African states, including the Central African Republic, Mali, and Libya. This led to an Emirati-based company, Kratol Aviation, being sanctioned by the United States government. It also led to ongoing investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigations into whether Erik Prince violated arms trafficking laws in Libya and Sudan.
There are also suspected ties between Arab private military contractors and South African private military contractors. There are allegations that Arab private military contractors specially target the South African special forces and South private military contractors for recruitment. This includes the allegation that Erik Prince once recruited former employees of a South African private military contractor, Executive Outcomes, for an Emirati private military contractor, Reflex Response.
There are well-known ties between the South African defense industry and the Russian defense industry. On the South African side, there are bilateral ties involving Armscor, Denel, and Paramount. On the Russian side, there are bilateral ties involving Rosoboronexport, Kalashnikov MRO, Rostec, and Russian Helicopters. Over the last decade, the Russian government and South African government have sought to broaden and deepen bilateral military, scientific, and technical cooperation even further. This appears to be part of a wider strategic effort by the Russian government to foster mutually beneficial ties with African states. In the words of the Rosoboronexport Director General, Alexander Mikheev, “Sub-Saharan Africa is now among the growth leaders in the level and quality of military-technical cooperation with Russia.” It is therefore not surprising that the Russian ship was reportedly carrying armor-piercing shells and machine guns purchased by Armscor through Rosoboronexport for the South African Special Forces.
There are also well-known ties between the South African defense industry and Arab governments. This becomes evident when one explores the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database. Between 2011 and 2022, the largest recipient of South African exports of major conventional weapons was the United Arab Emirates. Other large destinations included India and the United States. However, significant exports of major conventional weapons were also recorded for Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Here, the figures can be a bit misleading. The exports to Yemen were recorded between 2011 and 2013. Since 2014, there has been a civil war in the country. In 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened in that conflict. In 2018, the fighting escalated and Saleh Ali al-Sammad, president of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, was killed. It is therefore useful to look at the figures between 2015 and 2018. In that time period, over one-third of the South African exports of major conventional weapons went to Saudi Arabia-led coalition member states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the transfer of major conventional weapons to Arab countries has become more problematic. In 2019, the South African government reportedly blocked exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over inspections that they reportedly considered to be “a violation of their sovereignty.” They were not alone. Exports were also blocked to Algeria and Oman when they similarly “refused strict end user certificates that made provision for on-site inspections.”
These ties extend beyond South African exports of major conventional weapons. The South African defense industry has been in a structural state of decline for many years. This decline has been “exacerbated by corruption, unethical sales, and government mismanagement.” In recent years, this has raised concerns that the South African defense industrial complex might collapse altogether. To avert such a scenario, the South African government entered into talks with the Saudi Arabian and Qatari governments on the purchase of stakes in one of their state-owned defense companies, Denel. According to open sources, the Saudi Arabian government appeared to be especially interested in the advanced drone and missile technologies possessed by the company. In 2018, the Saudi Arabian government reportedly made their move with a billion-dollar bid to acquire a minority stake in a joint venture with Germany’s Rheinmetall. Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that sale started to unravel. But, that did not stop Paramount from entering into a separate agreement with Saudi Arabian Military Industries the next year. This brought about a strategic partnership to develop a broad spectrum of “technologies and capabilities across the land, sea, and air domains, as well as system integration.” Since then, the Saudi Arabian and South African governments have expanded their “cooperation in the field of military industries and procurements.” Last October, they even executed a new memorandum of understanding that strengthened “areas of cooperation in the field of defence procurement partnership between South Africa and Saudi Arabia.”
Given the context, it seems reasonable to assume that other kinds of actors could have been party to an arms transfer at Naval Base Simon’s Town. Aside from governments, these actors could include government agencies, private military contractors, and defense industry entities. Moreover, non-Russian government agencies, private military contractors, and defense industry entities could have been involved in the transaction. This could include one or more non-Russian actors acting as intermediaries, mediators, or recipients. Of course this is not a definitive list of the different kinds of actors that might have been involved. It simply serves as a useful starting point for generating hypotheses about what may have transpired.
The application of the above framework generates an expansive set of hypotheses about what may have happened at Naval Base Simon’s Town. Examples include:
Some component of the South African government transferred arms or related technologies to some component of the Russian government. Note, this could have occurred with or without the knowledge of senior leadership figures in the South African government. It could also have occurred with or without the proper authorizations and export licenses.
The South African Special Forces transferred arms or related technologies to non-Russian military forces operating in Mozambique or Sudan. This could have been their own forces in Mozambique. It could have been other Southern African Development Community forces operating in Mozambique. It could have been the Rapid Support Forces operating in Sudan. Or, it could have been to South African intelligence agents operating in Mozambique or Sudan. The list goes on and on.
Some component of the South African government, South African private military contractors, or South African defense companies transferred arms to Russian private military contractors. This most likely involved the Wagner Group. And, these arms could have been offloaded in Mozambique, Sudan, or Russia.
Some component of the South African government, South African private military contractors, or South African defense industry entities transferred arms or related technologies to some component of the government, a private military contractor, or a defense industry entity of a third party country. In this case, the Russian ship was a means of transportation. Most likely destinations would be China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Some component of the South African government, South African private military contractors, or South African defense companies transferred arms or related technologies to some component of the government, private military contractors, or defense companies of a third party country with some component of the Russian government, a Russian private military contractor, or a Russian defense company acting as an intermediary. Again, the most likely destinations would be China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Note, these are not mutually exclusive sets of hypotheses. It is possible that what really happened involved some combination of two or more of them.
The Simon’s Town Incident is a puzzle that needs to be solved. In the coming months, the South African government says that it will be investigating what really happened. Other governments will be doing the same. These will involve different levels of cooperation. Hopefully, these investigations will produce the evidence needed to reach a solid conclusion about what really happened with #LadyRussiagate. In the meantime, there will be a lot of hypotheses, hunches, conjectures, and suppositions being masqueraded as facts. For that reason, casual observers should avoid the hype and resist jumping to any conclusions. The full story of the Simon’s Town Incident has yet to be told. It may be a blockbuster of a story. Or it could be a box office bomb. Only time will tell.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.