JOHANNESBURG — The United States ambassador to South Africa has accused the country’s government of providing weapons and ammunition to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine, escalating the friction between the two countries over Russia and the war.
The ambassador, Reuben E. Brigety II, told reporters on Thursday that Washington has reason to believe that a Russian ship that docked near Cape Town at a South African naval base last December, the Lady R, “uploaded weapons and ammunition.”
“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel and I will bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Ambassador Brigety said, according to a clip of his exchange with the news media aired on the South African news channel Newzroom Afrika.
While the United States has called on its allies to condemn and isolate Russia, South African officials have refused to do so, citing the support that the African National Congress received from the Soviet Union in the long fight against apartheid and saying that they were maintaining a neutral stance on the fighting in Ukraine.
American and other Western allies, however, have said that South Africa has not been neutral and, in fact, has backed Russia. Ambassador Brigety’s allegation that Pretoria is providing ammunition to Moscow is the most pointed diplomatic jab yet in an increasingly tense relationship. He made the comments during a news conference in the capital Pretoria that was open only to South African media outlets.
Soon after the ambassador’s remarks South Africa’s currency, the rand, which recently had been falling in value against the U.S. dollar, continued its plunge.
Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, referred questions about the allegations to the country’s Defense Department and the office of the president. Spokesmen for the Defense Department and the president did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.
Ambassador Brigety’s comments came about a week after he visited Washington with a delegation of South African officials, who held high-level talks with the Biden administration and lawmakers. The delegation, sent by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, sought to smooth over some of the differences between the countries.
John Steenhuisen, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s top opposition party, called the ambassador’s statement “a chilling and deeply troubling confirmation that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government are actively involved in the Russian Federation’s war on Ukraine.”
The docking of the Lady R last year infuriated the American government. In February, a U.S. official told The New York Times that the American government believed that rocket propellant and munitions may have been loaded onto the ship, which is under U.S. sanctions. South Africa’s defense minister, Thandi Modise, had said the ship was delivering “an old outstanding order for ammunition.”
Last month, South African officials gave clearance for a cargo plane targeted by U.S. sanctions for ferrying Russian weapons to land at an air force base near Pretoria. South Africa’s Defense Department said the plane was delivering “diplomatic mail.”
The American government has hinted at retaliating against South Africa if it is found to have aided Russia’s war effort or helped it to evade sanctions. The United States has several options, including issuing sanctions and revoking trade privileges.
During a trip to South Africa in January, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that the United States would respond “quickly and harshly” to governments that violate U.S. sanctions, a message that another top Treasury Department official echoed in a meeting with South African representatives at last month’s World Bank and International Monetary Fund gathering.