Russia is due to take part in a joint naval exercise with China and South Africa which could see the test launch of a hypersonic cruise missile – as Western leaders assemble for a major security conference.
A frigate armed with the Zircon weapon has been deployed for 10 days of joint drills in the Indian Ocean, which will coincide with the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.
The vessel docked in Cape Town last weekend, emblazoned with the letters Z and V – notorious symbols that Moscow’s forces have used to promote the invasion.
Earlier this month, Russia‘s TASS news agency reported that the drills will involve a training launch of Zircon, though South Africa’s National Defence Force has denied it.
The Russian defence ministry said it last carried out a simulated launch of the missile last month – which Vladimir Putin has described as “unstoppable”.
South Africa’s decision to host the Mosi II military exercise, which begins Friday, has prompted criticism at home and fuelled western fears about Russian and Chinese influence across Africa.
The government, headed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, says it maintains a neutral stance on the Ukraine war and abstained from a UN resolution condemning the Kremlin last year.
Ahead of the drills, its defence ministry said: “South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its national interests.”
The country has previously held exercises with other international partners, including France in November.
But Reuters news agency reports that several EU and NATO diplomats based in South Africa “do not approve”.
Opposition parties to Mr Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) have also criticised the drills.
But the ANC has long had close-knit ties with Moscow, as the Soviet Union supported the then-banned party in its struggle against the country’s racist apartheid regime.
Major summit begins as Ukraine prepares for ‘escalation’
The drills will begin as a major security conference gets underway in Germany.
Ukrainian officials are expected to address the Munich summit later, as Russian forces step up a brutal offensive in eastern regions of the country they invaded almost a year ago.
Thirty-six missiles were fired across Ukraine on Thursday – 16 were shot down by Kyiv’s air force, but one struck the largest oil refinery nationwide.
Among those set to be at the Munich summit are German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Kamala Harris, the US vice president.
It comes as Kyiv presses its allies for more military hardware, including jets.
Speaking ahead of the conference during his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said troops were “holding the situation at the front” but also prepared for “escalation” by the enemy.
Russia’s focus is the small eastern city of Bakhmut, which Mr Putin is said to want captured by April.
He will meet with Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko on Friday.