The Russian military denied Wednesday that it was planning to test its new Zircon hypersonic missiles during naval drills off the coast of South Africa this week that will coincide with the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
China’s navy also is participating in the Indian Ocean exercises, which come at a time when Russia’s relationship with the West is at its lowest point since the Cold War, and ties between China and the United States are under serious strain.
As Russian and Chinese warships prepared in South Africa for their joint drills, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted China’s most senior foreign policy official at the Kremlin. Those meetings showed the strengthening of Russia’s relationship with China and raised concern in the West that Beijing might be ready to offer Moscow stronger support for its war in Ukraine.
Russia’s aims for the naval exercises came under scrutiny because of the involvement of the Admiral Gorshkov, a frigate which is armed with hypersonic missiles and has served as the main testbed for them. The ship arrived in Cape Town last week emblazoned with the letters Z and V, letters also seen on Russian weapons on the front lines in Ukraine and which are used as patriotic symbols in Russia.
Russia has said the Zircon missiles can penetrate any missile defense systems by flying at an astounding 7,000 miles per hour — around nine times the speed of sound — to strike targets at sea and on land. They have a range of over 620 miles, Russia claims.
Putin sent the Admiral Gorshkov on a trans-ocean cruise last month in a show of force as tensions with the West escalated over Ukraine. But a Russian navy officer in South Africa said Wednesday that the exercises would focus on maritime security, including the fight against piracy, and the Zircons would not be fired.
The drills will involve “mutual maneuvering of the three sides, assistance of the suffering vessel in a disaster, liberation of a captured vessel by the pirates, and artillery fire which, according to our schedule, does not include the firing with the hypersonic missiles,” Capt. Oleg Gladkiy said. He spoke through a translator.
The Admiral Gorshkov and a Russian oil tanker for refueling, a Chinese destroyer, frigate and a support vessel, and a South African frigate will be involved in the exercises, according to a South African military statement released last week.
Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova., criticized the timing of the drills, which will overlap with Friday’s one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.
Abravitova noted that China, Russia and South Africa, which are partners in the BRICS bloc of emerging economies, have undertaken joint naval drills before but said “it is a concern for us that they are happening at the time of the anniversary of the brutal Russian invasion.”
“The vessel that came to the shores of South Africa basically brought a piece of the war to this peaceful land through having the letters Z and V, which they are using as a marking on their military equipment while bombing Ukrainian cities,” Abravitova said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Last week, a small yacht flying Ukraine’s flag sailed by the Admiral Gorshkov in Cape Town’s harbor in protest. On Wednesday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Russian Embassy in the South African capital, Pretoria. They criticized the presence of the Russian warship and South Africa’s decision to host it.
One protester held up a placard that read: “DON’T PLAY with bullies.”
South Africa, a key partner of the West in Africa, has come under criticism for holding the naval exercises but has defended itself by saying they were planned two years ago, well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The exercises are to be held around the Indian Ocean port cities of Durban and Richards Bay. Media access was restricted.