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Russia, China and South Africa start military drills amid Ukraine war, but Russia says no hypersonic missile test

U.S.-China relations continue to be strained
U.S. officials worry China could provide weapons to Russia as relationship strains 02:09

Aboard the SAS Mendi, Richards Bay, South Africa — A Russian naval helping to lead contentiously-timed joint military exercises this week with Chinese and South African forces off South Africa's coast said the war games would not include Russia test-firing one of its most powerful weapons, a hypersonic "Tsirkon" missile. Captain Oleg Gladkly said the pre-planned joint naval exercise was starting Wednesday and would continue for five days.

In January, a U.S. official told CBS News the timing of the exercise, which will be ongoing Friday as the world marks a full year of Russia's unprovoked war on Ukraine, had the U.S. "concerned." David Feldmann, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, said that timing would at the very least present South Africa with a diplomatic challenge.

Chinese, Russian and South African Vessels ahead of Naval Exercise
The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is seen ahead of joint naval drills between Russia, South Africa and China, in Richards Bay, South Africa, Feb. 22, 2023. Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty

That "challenge" looked set to take on a possible new degree of severity in February, when a state-run Russian news agency said the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov would take part in the drills and conduct a "training launch" of a Tsirkon missile, taking aim at a "surface target" more than 310 miles away. The TASS news agency quoted "a source close to Russia's defense industry," but noted that Russian officials had not officially confirmed the plan.

During a news conference held Wednesday on the South African frigate SAS Mendi, the Russian commander confirmed that the Admiral Gorshkov, which is equipped with the advanced hypersonic missiles, was taking part, but would not fire one of the weapons.

Russia has been at the vanguard of efforts by many nations, including the U.S., to develop hypersonic glide missiles, which can be harder to detect and intercept due to their speed and maneuverability. Russia and China have outpaced U.S. efforts on the weapons systems thus far. Moscow claimed in March 2022 to have used a hypersonic missile in Ukraine in what would have been the first use of the weapon on any battlefield, though U.S. officials never confirmed one was actually used. Two months later, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted by TASS as saying it had conducted a successful test of a Tsirkon, hitting a target about 620 miles away.

Inside the race to develop hypersonic weapons 02:21

Several years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the Tsirkon as part of a new class of "invincible" Russian weapons.

Regardless of the missiles aboard, the Russian warship's presence in South Africa was contentious. It was docked along the South African coast for journalists to see Wednesday adorned with symbols strongly associated with Putin's war on Ukraine.

CBS News asked Captain Gladkly, the Russian commander, about the painted white letters "Z" and "V" seen on the frigate's blackened smokestack, and he quickly admonished the question, telling us "not to read anything into it." Through a translator, he insisted the drills beginning Wednesday were just a friendly naval exercise.

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is seen ahead of joint naval drills between Russia, South Africa and China, in Richards Bay, South Africa, with the letter "V" displayed on one of the warship's smokestack, Feb. 22, 2023. CBS News/Sarah Carter

"We are hearing South Africans ask, 'Is this the right time for South Africa to support the war fighting capabilities of Russia during its invasion of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine, and does South Africa want to be associated with the symbol 'Z' painted on the side of the frigate the Admiral Gorshkov?'" Feldmann said in an interview on Power FM Zim South Africa. "The symbols of 'Z' and 'V' are symbols of hatred and death. Are they symbols which a South African ship should float next to?" 

South African Chief of Joint Operations Lt. Gen. Siphiwe Lucky Sangweni said planning for the naval exercises began two years ago, contradicting earlier reports that they were scheduled during Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.  

Senior Captain Sun Honglin, a Chinese Navy commander who joined the Wednesday media briefing, said his country had brought a frigate, destroyer and a supply ship to join the joint exercises. 

The symbolism of China and Russia working closer as military allies was on full display Wednesday. The two countries have pushed for years to expand their reach into the African continent.

Chinese, Russian and South African Vessels ahead of Naval Exercise
A soldier patrols onboard the Chinese frigate Rizhao 598, ahead of naval drills between Russia, South Africa and China, in Richards Bay, South Africa, Feb. 22, 2023. Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty

Some security analysts have argued that by hosting the war games, South Africa is providing Russia a stage to showcase its military might as it wages a brutal war that has claimed the lives of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. 

In January, during one of three trips that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made to Africa, he attended a news conference with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor, who dismissed a question from a journalist asking her to repeat the call from many Western nations for South Africa to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

Pandor said to issue such a call would be "simplistic and infantile."

South Africa was among 35 nations that abstained from a United Nations vote in October that saw member nations overwhelming condemn Russia's invasion and call for a withdrawal.

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South African officials have repeatedly pointed out as they defend the Mosi II exercises that such drills with other nations are routine, including four conducted with the United States since 2011. 

Pandor said at the January news conference that trying to stop South Africa from conducting joint military exercises with countries of its choosing amounted to "an abuse of international practice."

The South African National Defense Force said 350 service members would take part in the exercises, with the priority for its navy being to protect fisheries and combat piracy in the Indian Ocean.  

Feldmann, at the U.S. Embassy, noted a debate within South Africa about why media outlets were only being given access to one press briefing about the war games, instead of direct access to the exercise as is often enabled. 

The exercise, dubbed "Mosi II," which means smoke in the Tswana language, has drawn widespread criticism that South Africa has abandoned its claimed neutrality in the Ukraine war. The exercise will see simulated combat attacks on the ships and involve air defenses using South African and Chinese helicopters and Chinese and Russian high-speed boats. They will also practice maneuvers to rescue ships from piracy and to remove sea mines. 

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