BRICS is crumbling: SA’s foreign policy in jeopardy as Russia weakens and India leans towards USA – Katzenellenbogen

The crumbling of BRICS, the alternative pole to the West, has put South Africa in a precarious position. With Russia’s diminished role in global affairs following an attempted mutiny and India’s decisive shift towards closer ties with the US, South Africa’s foreign policy alliances are being challenged. Katzenellenbogen highlights how Russia’s internal instability and India’s growing concerns about China have reshaped global dynamics. South Africa’s heavy investment in its relationship with Russia has backfired, while its claims of neutrality are questioned amidst changing alliances. Katzenellenbogen calls for a reappraisal of South Africa’s allegiances and emphasises the need for real neutrality in a changing world.

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How the role of Russia and the BRICS crumbled in a week

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

South Africa’s alternative pole to that of the West, BRICS, has crumbled within a week. Made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, BRICS has been the lodestar in SA’s foreign policy. It has provided much of the official cover for South Africa’s lean to Russia while claiming neutrality.

The entire idea of coordinated action by BRICS and its role as an alternative pole is no more.

After last weekend’s attempted mutiny led by the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been immensely weakened. With that, Russia’s role in global affairs and the BRICS group has been greatly reduced.

This is while India’s role in global affairs has also been undergoing fundamental change. The visit last week by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to Washington has shown that despite its official neutrality, New Delhi now leans to the US. The deals signed by the US and India last week mean that Washington and New Delhi are in a relationship that might fall just short of an alliance.

All that leaves South Africa in a precarious position. The BRICS group does not have any real value as a potential alliance or as a lodestar. And with its leaning towards Russia, and to an extent China, South Africa is not seen as even a friend of the West. We could be left somewhat isolated, unless there is a walk-back to real neutrality.

Read more: BRICS: From investment slogan to global power club — Iran, Saudi Arabia, and 17 others now want in

Whatever way Pretoria might spin matters, South Africa’s relationship with Russia was unravelling even before the attempted insurrection. When the African ‘peace delegation’ led by President Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the ten-point plan short shrift. It showed that in reality, Russia saw no credibility in South Africa’s attempt to mediate. The exercise did not even help bolster our credentials as a neutral party. 

There is a new reality about Russia in the aftermath of last weekend’s attempted mutiny.

While the Wagner group head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, called off the insurrection and, under a deal, may have headed to neighbouring Belarus, Putin has probably been fatally damaged. Such a challenge to the rule of an autocrat reveals his weakness and spells out opportunities for internal opponents. It is unclear what divisions and alliances within the Russian state will emerge, but things have fundamentally changed in Moscow.

This means there are well-founded concerns about stability in Russia. In the coming weeks, Putin will be paying a lot more attention to internal politics. We no longer have to worry that Putin will be at the forthcoming BRICS summit, and that we would be placed in the embarrassing position of having to arrest him under commitments to the International Criminal Court. But it also means we will have difficulty walking back from our allegiances.

The post-Putin era might be close at hand. Out of caution, much of the world may now want to distance itself from Russia, while waiting to see what emerges after Act I.

A diminished Russia means that BRICS is not what it was, and that South Africa has been burnt from investing so heavily in the relationship with Moscow. 

Perhaps more significant than the mutiny in Russia was the symbol last week of India’s decisive shift towards far closer ties with the US. Last week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was embraced in Washington, where he addressed the US Congress, and signed multiple defence and technology deals. The US has agreed to sell India reconnaissance drones, and there could be more deals in the months ahead.

Read more: ANC’s damaging foreign policy: Ideology without moral authority – Terence Corrigan

India will be an enormous beneficiary of the US push toward friend-shoring – the move to locate manufacturing facilities in countries that are close friends – to reduce dependence on China. General Electric will manufacture jet engines that are used in the F-18 fighter in India, and there are agreements to work together on artificial intelligence, semiconductors and space exploration. The two countries already conduct regular military exercises and are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Australia and Japan.

India has a long-standing border dispute with China and is deeply concerned about Beijing assertiveness in Asia. It is keen to find help in standing up to China.

While India strictly maintains a policy of neutrality, it joined China in voting to condemn Russia in a UN vote a few months ago. India is buying the oil that Russia cannot sell to the West, but this and its reliance on Russian weapons is pushed aside in Western capitals. 

With India’s population estimated by the UN to have overtaken that of China, and with the fast growth of its economy and middle class, much of the world is keen for far closer ties. This gives India great leeway in what it does. While BRICS membership suits India as a point of diplomatic contact, its increasingly close ties with the West mean it is not about to join up with its rival China on any initiative.

The events of the past week in Russia, the cold reception of the African delegation in Moscow, and Modi’s warm welcome in Washington should force a reappraisal by Pretoria. 

Read more: RW Johnson: Implications for SA of a suddenly fragile Putin; Ramaphosa bombing in Paris

But the ANC’s heart is with Russia and China. Last week the Chief of the South African National Defence Force was in Beijing for talks about increased military co-operation. This was not a good time for the visit. The US is on the verge of re-considering South Africa’s eligibility to continue to receive tariff-free benefits for many of its exports under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

Russia can offer little to South Africa, and China, although a major trade partner, is not a leading investor or aid donor to the country. Neither is part of the group that has made a commitment of $8.5 billion to finance South Africa’s Just Energy Transition. The loans will be funded by the US, the European Union, France, Germany and the UK.

While this support for renewables might not end South Africa’s dire energy predicament, it will help. Neither Eskom, nor the government, nor the private sector has the resources to massively finance SA energy investment needs. Russia cannot afford to give us favourable terms on a nuclear deal, and China may make loans on commercial terms.

As this article in the Daily Maverick points out, European Prime Ministers and foreign ministers have been flocking to Pretoria in recent weeks. Why are they streaming to Pretoria? The sole reason cannot be to talk about green energy. They must have come with queries and warnings about where South Africa stands on the big issues of the day.

The visits might have resulted in an invitation to French President Emmanuel Macron to attend the BRICS summit being hosted by South Africa. A summit without Putin, but with Macron would signal change, but real neutrality would require more.

The world changed last week, but it is unclear whether Pretoria fully realises the extent of this, and how it should best respond.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission