Johannesburg, South Africa - South Africa has defended its warm relations and joint military drills with Russia as it hosts Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on his first visit since the invasion of Ukraine.
Lavrov said he appreciated South Africa's neutral stance since the war started one year ago and placed the blame for the continuing conflict squarely on the Ukraine and the West.
"It is well known that we supported the proposal of the Ukrainian side to negotiate early in the special military operation... it is well known that our American and British and some of our European colleagues told Ukraine that it is too early to deal," he said.
Russia has repeatedly rejected Ukrainian and Western demands that it withdraw completely from Ukraine as a condition for any negotiations.
Lavrov also denied Moscow is targeting civilians, despite numerous attacks on residential buildings in Ukraine that experts say likely add up to war crimes.
South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, reiterated Pretoria would like to see a diplomatic solution through dialogue.
"As South Africa, our sincere wish that the conflict in Ukraine will soon be brought to a peaceful end through diplomacy and negotiation," she said.
However, she defended South Africa's right to maintain bilateral relations with whichever countries it wants and not be dictated to by the West.
South Africa is hosting the Russian and Chinese navies for February exercises off Durban.
Pandor noted all countries conduct military exercises "with friends."
Defense Ministry spokesman Cornelius Monama said Monday that the drills would "strengthen the strong bonds between the countries."
"Contrary to the assertions by our critics, South Africa is not abandoning its neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict," he said.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance has called for the drills to be called off and Ukraine's ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, told VOA recently that she didn't understand why South Africa was conducting exercises with, quote, "the army of rapists and murders."
Steven Gruzd, a Russia expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs, said Lavrov had "clearly found some sympathy" from Pandor and he expects to see greater cooperation between the two BRICS allies going forward.
"I think it's interesting to read the body language between minsters Lavrov and Pandor, the Russian and South Africa foreign ministers, I think it was quite warm from the press conference and there is a genuine meeting of minds between the countries," he said.
But Gruzd said South Africa's hosting naval exercises with Russia could affect its standing on the international stage.
He added that it will be interesting to see the chemistry between Pandor and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who arrives in South Africa late Tuesday for a visit.
Despite pressure from the U.S., Pretoria has refused join Washington in condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
South Africa also invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit later this year for the summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies, though it's not yet clear if he will attend.
The BRICS group is Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.