Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers touched down today at South African Air Force Base Waterkloof in the country's capital Pretoria, marking the first time these bombers have made a visit to anywhere in Africa. This comes on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the first-ever Russia Africa Summit in Sochi on the Black Sea and as the Kremlin has been working to expand its influence across the continent.
South African authorities announced the Russian Air Force would be sending the bombers on Oct. 21, 2019, and described the deployment as a military-to-military cooperation event. The Tu-160s were supposed to arrive yesterday, but experienced unspecified technical issues, which pushed their trip back a day. Bad weather further delayed when they would actually land at Waterkloof. An An-124 cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger transport aircraft did make the trip as scheduled on Oct. 22, 2019, carrying supporting personnel and equipment. This is a typical support package for the Blackjacks that also accompanied a pair of bombers on a trip to Venezuela in December 2018.
"The RSA [Republic of South Africa] and Russian Federation have strong historical links with diplomatic relations established between both countries on February 28, 1992," an official South African Defense Department press release said on Oct. 23, 2019. "The 'Military to Military' relations between the two countries is not solely built on struggle politics, but rather on fostering mutually beneficial partnerships based on common interests."
It is worth noting that South Africa abolished its racist apartheid system that ensured White minority rule in 1991, but only held its first post-apartheid elections with universal suffrage in 1994. A year later, the new South African government, under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela, signed an agreement formalizing military-to-military ties with Russia.
For the Russians, the deployment is a visible demonstration of the country's ability to conduct military operations far from its own territorial borders. Russia has already been conducting an increasing number of long-range patrols, including using strategic bombers such as the Tu-160 and the Tu-95MS Bear, in the strategic Arctic and Pacific regions in recent years, highlighting these capabilities.
Some of the missions in the Pacific have been in cooperation with China, underscoring how the Kremlin has been looking to engage more and more regularly with its partners around the world more directly. This was also seen in the deployment of the two Tu-160s to Venezuela in 2018, which involved a combined Russian-Venezuelan patrol in the Caribbean Sea lasting some ten hours.
The exact route the nuclear-capable strategic bombers took to South Africa, and how many times they needed to refuel in midair, is unclear. It was reportedly one intended specifically to demonstrate the Blackjack's range capabilities.
"I have been told that the Tu-160s are taking a longer route that's almost entirely over the ocean," Darren Olivier, the Director of African Defense Review who was the first to call attention to the Russian Air Force's visit, wrote on Twitter. "A similar strategy was followed when Russia sent a pair of Tu-160s to Venezuela a few years ago. Shows impressive range."
It is very possible, if not probable that we will soon see the Tu-160s flying with South African combat aircraft, potentially on a major, long-duration patrol, near the Antarctic region. South African Air Force Gripen fighter jets and Hawk jet trainers were supposed to escort the Tu-160s to Waterkloof, but it is unclear if the Gripens actually participated in the event. Hawks did greet the bombers and accompanied them to the South African base.
Regardless, as with the Tu-160s' visit to Venezuela last year, the arrival of the Blackjacks at Waterkloof is also a very visible display of the warm relations between Russia and South Africa. African Defense Review's Olivier said that there had been plans for such a visit in 2016, but that the Russian Air Force scrapped the deployment due to operational demands relating to the conflict in Syria. It's not clear why this would have impacted the Tu-160s, which have seen very limited use in that conflict compared to other types, but there may have been other personnel and logistical constraints at the time, especially in terms of airlift capacity.
Now, ironically thanks to the delays, the bombers' arrival is even more symbolic. Earlier in the day, at the first-of-its-kind Russia Africa Summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met with Putin.
"While in Russia, President Ramaphosa is expected to attend the inaugural Russia-Africa Economic Forum, have bilateral meetings with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and other Heads of State and Government attending the summit,' Ramaphosa's office said in a statement ahead of the trip. These "discussions ... are framed by three thematic pillars, namely, forging economic ties, creating joint projects, and collaborating in the humanitarian and social sector," according to the official South African
Government News Agency.
"We see how an array of Western countries are resorting to pressure, intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African governments," Putin had told the Russian state-run news agency TASS on Oct. 21, 2019. In recent years, the Kremlin has been using debt forgiveness and generously financed sales of weapons and other military equipment, among other mechanisms, to expand its influence across Africa. Trade overall with African countries was worth approximately $20 billion in 2018 to the the Russian Federation, nearly four times what it was a decade earlier.
The Kremlin has also reportedly employed some of its hybrid warfare strategies to try to ensure that pro-Russian leaders in various countries remain in power. Last year, there were reports that the ostensibly independent Russian private military company Wagner, which has close ties to Russian intelligence agencies if it is not taking orders from them directly, was working with the government of the Central African Republic (CAR). That country has been in the midst of civil strife since 2012, but the government reached a deal with a number of armed groups in February of this year, though there are reports that fighting continues.
"Heavy weapons are necessary for us to create effective forces," CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera said in his own meeting with Putin at the Summit in Sochi, where he also thanked Russia for its previous military assistance and asked the Kremlin to help get a U.N. arms embargo on his country lifted entirely. "Armed groups get heavy weapons by circumventing the embargo and that is why we cannot control the territory of the whole country."
Russia has also made recent arms deliveries to Mozambique, including Mi-17 helicopters equipped with the President-S directional infrared countermeasure system, sometimes misidentified as sensor turrets, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece. There are also reports of shadowy Russian mercenary groups, such as Wagner, being present. This country is also experiencing an outburst of political violence that observers fear could lead to a larger civil conflict.
Secretive Russian military contractors may have also tried to intervene on behalf of former Sudanese dictator Omar Al Bashir, who is now in prison following a coup in April 2019 that occurred in the midst of popular protests against him. The Kremlin also has strong ties to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who launched an assault on that country's internationally recognized government earlier this year.
These are just some of the inroads that Russia has been looking to make across the continent in recent years, spurred on in part by what appears to be waning U.S. government interest under President Donald Trump. The U.S. military notably announced last year that it would be significantly drawing down its African commitments.
In the end, Russia's real competitor, in this case, may be China, which has already established significant ties throughout Africa, including the establishment of a major military outpost in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti in 2017. The Chinese government also notably financed the construction of the African Union's present headquarters, which opened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2012. Beijing has denied reports that it also installed covert surveillance equipment in the building while Chinese construction companies were building it.
Still, the deployment of the two Tu-160s to South Africa certainly sends a very loud signal that the Kremlin remains invested in that country and continues to be interested in expanding its ties across the continent, as a whole.
UPDATE: 3:50pm EST—
TV Zvezda, an official outlet of the Russian Ministry of Defense, says that the Tu-160s flew approximately 6,835 miles over the course of some 13 hours to get to South Africa, flying over the Caspian and Arabian Seas, as well as the Indian Ocean. A separate report from TASS says that the flight lasted only 12 hours and also saw the bombers fly through the national air spaces of seven different unspecified African countries.
African Defense Review's Darren Olivier has said that the discrepancies between the TV Zvezda and TASS reports may be confusion over the over-sea route that the two Tu-160s took with the overland route that the An-124 and Il-62 followed to get to South Africa. He has also offered additional clarification regarding Russia's decision not to make this deployment in 2016.
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