Russia will not fire Zircon missile at South Africa naval exercise

By Siyabonga Sishi

RICHARDS BAY, South Africa (Reuters) -Russia's navy will not fire its new generation "Zircon" hypersonic missile during a joint exercise with South Africa and China, a senior Russian naval officer said on Wednesday, contradicting an earlier Russian media report.

South Africa's government has long-standing ties to Moscow dating back to its struggle against apartheid, though it says it maintains a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine.

But the 10-day exercise, which it is hosting off its eastern coast, coincides with the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of its neighbour and has raised alarm among Western governments.

Russia's TASS news agency reported earlier this month that a frigate participating in the drills would perform a training launch of the Zircon missile during the exercise.

A Russian frigate armed with the Zircon weapon system has been deployed to the joint exercise.

However Captain Oleg Gladkiy, who is heading the Russian contingent, said during a media briefing in the town of Richards Bay that no test launch would take place as part of the planned artillery drills.

"The hypersonic weapon will not be used in the context of these exercises," Gladkiy said. "There is no hidden meaning in the exercises that we are performing today."

Russia, China and the United States are in a race to develop hypersonic weapons which are seen as a way to gain an edge over any adversary because of their speeds - topping five times the speed of sound - and manoeuvrability.

Along with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle which entered combat duty in 2019, the Zircon forms the centrepiece of Russia's hypersonic arsenal. President Vladimir Putin has called it "unstoppable".

World powers are vying for influence in Africa amid deepening global tensions resulting from the war in Ukraine and an increasingly aggressive Chinese posture towards self-ruled Taiwan.

But a number of African nations are steadfastly refusing to take sides.

South Africa has defended its decision to host the Mosi II naval exercise despite the concerns of diplomats from European Union and NATO countries.

"It is my belief that the position of the government of South Africa must also and should also be respected, similar to those who have counter opinions," Lieutenant-General Siphiwe Lucky Sangweni, South Africa's head of joint operations, told the press briefing.

South Africa's governing African National Congress has been historically close to Moscow, which supported its struggle against a racist apartheid regime that many Western states considered a Cold War ally.

Domestic critics of its relationship with Russia, however, warn that maintaining those warm ties in the wake of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine risks damaging relations with major Western trading partners.

(Reporting by Siyabonga Sishi in Richards BayAdditional reporting by Carien du Plessis and Anait Miridzhanian in JohannesburgWriting by Joe BavierEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky)