South African officials have been grappling for months with a dilemma that has drawn them into distant threads of war: Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close ally, was due to attend an important diplomatic summit in their country, but they are legally required to arrest him because he is wanted by an international court that has accused him of war crimes in Ukraine.
With the August summit fast approaching, it seemed South Africa had to choose between burning bridges with Russia or destroying relations with the United States and other Western countries, major trading partners who have grown increasingly chafing over warming relations between South Africa and Moscow.
But on Wednesday, Putin gave South Africa a way out.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Putin had decided, by “mutual agreement”, not to attend the summit in person, and that he would send his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his place. Russian state media said Mr Putin would take part via videoconference at the summit, a long-planned meeting of the heads of state of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a bloc known as BRICS.
While this decision alleviates South Africa’s immediate dilemma, the country continues to walk a shaky and very public tightrope as it tries to maintain strong relations with each of its great power allies when they are at odds with one another.
South Africa has faced harsh criticism from the United States for its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition, South Africa has been accused by US officials of providing arms to Russia, an allegation denied by the government and Mr. Ramaphosa said it is being investigated.
Critics at home have accused Ramaphosa, who faces a tough contest for re-election next year, of taking a soft line on Russia that could hurt South Africa economically. US lawmakers and government officials have suggested that the US should consider eliminating South Africa’s trade benefits and rethinking the alliance between the nations together. Hosting Putin will only fuel those demands.
Mr. Putin is the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of being responsible for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and their deportation to Russia. As one of the signatories of the court, South Africa was supposed to arrest the Russian president if he ever set foot on its soil.
However, Putin insisted for months that he would attend the summit in person, rebuffing pleas to stay home or attend via video. But he softened his stance after instability was unleashed last month by the brief insurrection organized by the leader of the Wagner network, Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to a South African government official who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations.
“Mr. Putin has become easier to persuade as a result of his recent domestic problems,” the official said.
Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Maguiña, said he was unaware whether the revolution affected Putin’s decision, but that it was the result of lengthy deliberation.
South African officials have said in recent months that they fear the question of Mr. Putin’s attendance at a BRICS meeting threatens to overshadow the agenda. The BRICS countries have designed themselves as an alternative to a world order centered around the United States and Europe, and a voice for countries that are not among the world’s great powers.
The BRICS countries have pushed for more developing countries to have seats on the United Nations Security Council, for rich countries to provide more funding for developing countries to tackle climate change, and for a more equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
Analysts say South Africa, as the newest and youngest member of the bloc, is trying to exert more influence globally and position itself as a voice for Africa.
South African officials have accused Western countries of double standards for demanding the arrest of Mr. Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, while evading the actions of the International Criminal Court over the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s political party, the African National Congress, said last Wednesday morning that he wished Mr. Putin would attend the summit. But the party applauded the end result. The conference “will allow the BRICS summit to focus on pressing issues in the geopolitical situation,” ANC spokeswoman Mahlingi Bhingo told a news briefing on Wednesday.
While many who wanted Mr Putin to attend may feel disappointed, She said, “I think wisdom may have prevailed among our leaders.”
Ramaphosa had warned in an affidavit from the court released on Tuesday that his country could suffer severe consequences if it arrested Putin. Mr. Ramaphosa said in the 32-page affidavit that Russia had “made it clear” that the arrest “would be a declaration of war”.
The Kremlin has denied making any direct threats towards South Africa, but its spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, he told reporters on Wednesday that “it is absolutely clear to everyone what it means to try to encroach on the Russian leader.”
The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition political party, has asked a court in Pretoria, the country’s executive capital, to force the government to arrest Mr Putin if he attends the summit, which is scheduled for August 22-24.
The coalition’s leader, John Steinhausen, applauded Wednesday’s announcement.
“It avoids a potential international crisis,” he said.
In 2015, South Africa faced international condemnation when it refused to arrest Sudan’s then president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international court for war crimes and genocide over atrocities in the western region of Darfur. South Africa allowed Mr. Bashir to fly unhindered to and from Johannesburg for an African Union meeting. He is still wanted by the court.
Lynsey Shuttle Contributing reporting from Johannesburg, W Ivan Nikiporenko From Tbilisi, Georgia.
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