PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Russia was willing to negotiate with Ukraine in the early months of the war, but the United States and other Western nations advised Kyiv against holding talks, Moscow’s top diplomat said Monday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks on a visit to South Africa were similar to those made last year by President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. and other Western nations have said that Russia isn’t serious about hammering out a deal to end the nearly year-long war, which began on Feb. 24.

“It is well known that we supported the proposal of the Ukrainian side to negotiate early in the special military operation and by the end of March, the two delegations agreed on the principle to settle this conflict,” Lavrov said.

“It is well known and was published openly that our American, British, and some European colleagues told Ukraine that it is too early to deal, and the arrangement which was almost agreed was never revisited by the Kyiv regime.”

Russia has repeatedly rejected Ukrainian and Western demands that it withdraw completely from Ukraine as a condition for any negotiations. U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated he would be willing to talk with Putin, if the Russian leader demonstrated that he seriously wanted to end the invasion.

Lavrov is in Pretoria for talks with South African counterpart Naledi Pandor as Russia pushes to strengthen ties with Africa’s most developed country and an historical ally amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

South Africa was seen as the most significant of several African nations to take a neutral stance on the war and refuse to condemn Russia’s invasion — to the disappointment of the U.S. and other Western partners who also view South Africa as pivotal to their plans to build relationships in Africa.

Lavrov met with Pandor in the South African capital and is expected to visit other African countries on his trip. It’s the Russian minister’s second visit to Africa in the space of six months as Moscow seeks to rally support.

Russia’s war in Ukraine and its impact on Africa’s 1.3 billion people, which includes rising oil and food prices, was expected to take center stage during Lavrov’s talks with Pandor.

“We are fully alert that conflict, wherever it exists in the world, impacts negatively on all of us, and as the developing world it impacts on us particularly as the African continent,” Pandor said before the talks. “This is why as South Africa we consistently articulate that we will always stand ready to support the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the continent and throughout the globe.”

Lavrov repeated a claim that he’s made before that the West was responsible for the surge in global food prices.

South Africa continues to keep strong bonds with Russia following the Soviet Union’s support for the country’s current ruling party, the African National Congress, when it was a liberation movement fighting to end the apartheid system of repression against South Africa’s Black majority.

That relationship is largely what led South Africa to abstain from a U.N. vote last year condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, although a small group of people protested against Russia and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine outside the building where Lavrov and Pandor held talks.

Despite South Africa’s expressed neutrality over Ukraine, Lavrov’s visit comes days after the South African armed forces announced they would hold joint drills with the Russian and Chinese navies off South Africa’s eastern coast next month, bringing Russian and Chinese warships across the Indian Ocean.

On Monday, Lavrov insisted that the naval exercises would be “transparent” and follow international law.

“Three sovereign countries will hold drills without violating international law, and I don’t understand with whom this can cause a mixed reaction,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian state news agency Tass.

Lavrov visited Ethiopia, Egypt, Uganda and the Republic of Congo on his African tour last year. That was closely followed by a visit to South Africa by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a move seen as a bid by Washington to counter expanding Russian influence in a strategically important continent.

This time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will start an official visit to South Africa on Wednesday following stops in Senegal and Zambia.

Yellin’s arrival in South Africa comes on the same day that a second U.S. Cabinet minister, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, arrives in Ghana at the start of a three-nation African trip that will also include Mozambique and Kenya.

Biden announced at the end of a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December that he will visit sub-Saharan Africa in 2023, the first trip to the region by a U.S. leader in a decade.

The summit and high-level U.S. visits are aimed at strengthening U.S. relations with Africa, where China has surpassed the U.S. in trade and is aiming to increase its military presence, and Russia has military ties with the authorities in Mali and Central African Republic.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine