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Tensions Escalate Between South Africa and U.S. Over Landing of Sanctioned Russian Cargo Plane

South African officials sparked controversy last week by allowing a cargo plane targeted by U.S. sanctions for supporting Russia’s military efforts to land at an air force base near Pretoria, the capital. The move is expected to further escalate tensions between South Africa and the United States.

The U.S. had previously stated that the plane was involved in shipping weapons for Russia’s defense forces. However, South Africa’s Department of Defense claimed that the aircraft had been delivering diplomatic mail for the Russian Embassy. The exact nature of the cargo remains undisclosed.

South Africa’s decision to permit the landing contradicts American efforts to isolate Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. While South Africa is not bound by U.S. sanctions, this move is likely to worsen relations with the United States. Steven Gruzd, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, commented that the landing “will only serve to exacerbate the tense relations with the U.S.”

Despite South Africa’s declared neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, its foreign policy has shown increasing alignment with Russia. Mr. Gruzd noted that South Africa’s choice to allow the landing reflects its leaning towards Russia.

Both the American and Russian Embassies in Pretoria declined to comment on the landing. The incident comes at a time when the United States has expressed concerns about Pretoria’s potential support for Moscow during the Ukraine war. The U.S. has cautioned South Africa that it could face repercussions if found to have provided material support to Russia.

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the landing, calling it an affront to South Africa’s relationship with the United States. He emphasized that while the South African people remain important partners, the government’s hostile acts against U.S. sovereign interests cannot be accepted.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is already facing political turmoil over whether his government would honor an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin issued by the International Criminal Court. This issue arises as part of a planned summit scheduled for August.

Flight radar records indicate that the Ilyushin IL-76 plane originated from Russia’s Chkalovsky military airfield near Moscow on April 21, making several stops in the Middle East and Africa before reaching South Africa’s Waterkloof Air Force Base on April 24. The Defense Department confirmed the plane’s landing at the base, stating that the Russian Embassy had formally requested permission for the aircraft to land.

While delivering diplomatic mail by aircraft is not uncommon, concerns have been raised about potential abuses. Questions have been raised as to why the plane did not use a nearby commercial airport, which is the more typical location for offloading diplomatic bags.

Helmoed Heitman, a defense analyst, suggested that Western sanctions likely influenced the flight plan and landing. There may have been concerns that landing at a commercial airport could result in arrest.

The cargo plane is owned by Aviacon Zitotrans, a Russian company previously subjected to U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in January. Aviacon has been involved in shipping military equipment worldwide, including warheads and rockets. The company has yet to respond to inquiries for comment.

This incident follows the docking of a Russian container ship called the Lady R, also under U.S. sanctions, at a South African naval port in December. Allowing a commercial ship to use a naval facility raised concerns among South Africans.

A U.S. official in South Africa suggested that the American government believed munitions and rocket propellant, potentially for use in the war, might have been loaded onto the Russian tanker. South Africa’s defense minister, Thandi Modise, stated that the ship was delivering an “old outstanding order for ammunition.”

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