The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is scheduled to train with the South African and Chinese navies off South Africa's coast, Feb. 17-27, 2023.

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is scheduled to train with the South African and Chinese navies off South Africa's coast, Feb. 17-27, 2023. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

A Russian frigate, armed with hypersonic missiles, will exercise off the African coast with the Chinese and South African navies, according to a report by a Russian news agency Monday.

The South African armed forces and the Russian and Chinese navies will engage in "a multinational maritime exercise" from Feb. 17-27 off South Africa's east coast near the cities of Durban and Richards Bay, the South African Department of Defence announced Thursday.

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, carrying Zircon hypersonic missiles, will resupply at the Syrian port of Tartus before joining the drills, according to a report by Russian state news agency TASS that quoted an unnamed military-diplomatic source.

The missiles fly at nine times the speed of sound, with a range of more than 620 miles. They form the backbone of its hypersonic arsenal, along with the Avangard glide vehicle that entered service in 2019, according to a Reuters report Monday.

The exercise, aimed at strengthening “already flourishing” relations between the three nations, will be the second involving the countries in South Africa, after a drill in 2019, according to the South African statement.

The exercise is scheduled a year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. South Africa abstained in a United Nations vote last year condemning the invasion.

South Africa maintains strong ties with Russia, a legacy of the former Soviet Union's backing for the African National Congress, now the ruling party, while it fought to end the apartheid system that denied rights to South African Blacks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in Pretoria this week for talks with South African counterpart Naledi Pandor, according to TASS.

The naval drills will be "transparent" and follow international law, Lavrov said Monday, according to a TASS report Tuesday.

"Three sovereign countries will hold drills without violating international law, and I don't understand with whom this can cause a mixed reaction," he said, according to the report.

The U.S. has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages war against Ukraine, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday, according to a transcript released by the White House.

“We've been consistent on this. Of course, every participating country will make their own decision,” she said. “But again, we've said this before, we do have concerns.”

Jean-Pierre said Washington made its views clear to Pretoria: "I don't have any conversations to read out, but we've been very, very consistent.”

The drills serve a political purpose by sending the message that Russia is not as isolated as the West would like, according to James Brown, an international affairs expert at Temple University’s Japan campus.

“In involving China and South Africa, they are also a reminder of the existence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping, which Moscow hopes will develop into a counterweight to the West,” he said in an email Monday.

However, the drills are of questionable military value, Brown said.

“China has already made it very clear that it will not directly assist Russia's invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “South Africa certainly is not in a position to do so. If anything, sending military assets to southern Africa at this time is a distraction for Russia's overstretched military.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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