By Cyrus Bengo

Vladimir Putin will skip a summit of Brics heads of state in South Africa next month, ending a headache for Cyril Ramaphosa’s government that faced a legal obligation to arrest him on an International Criminal Court indictment.

“By mutual agreement, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will not attend the Summit but the Russian Federation will be represented by Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov,” the South African presidency said on Wednesday.

South Africa had been stepping up efforts to dissuade Putin from taking up an invitation that Pretoria made before the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges in March.

Ramaphosa left and Putin right

Ramaphosa claimed in court papers released this week that South Africa was risking war with Russia if it tried to execute the warrant on Putin should he arrive in Johannesburg for the August summit.

But the South African president also said in the papers that his government was “fully cognisant” of its international legal obligations as a member of the court, even as it approached the ICC to warn that it would have problems effecting an arrest.

Putin will be the only Brics head to miss the summit, as South Africa has confirmed the attendance of the leaders of Brazil, India and China. It will be the bloc’s first in-person gathering since the coronavirus pandemic.

The Kremlin has not commented on Putin’s travel plans but Dmitry Peskov, his spokesman, had earlier told reporters that Russia had not threatened to declare war on South Africa if it arrested Putin.

“This was not said. There’s nothing to explain here. Everyone in the world knows what an attempt on the head of the Russian state would mean,” Peskov said, without elaborating.

South African diplomats worked for months on contingency options including a virtual summit, moving the gathering to China, which is not a member of the ICC, and Lavrov attending in Putin’s place.

But ultimately officials concluded that Ramaphosa, who has cordial relations with the Russian leader, would have to personally convince Putin not to come. Ramaphosa planned to use next week’s Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg to do so, they said.

South African activists hailed confirmation that Putin would not come as a sign of the country taking its ICC obligations seriously. This contrasts with its failure under Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa’s predecessor, to arrest former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on a warrant from the court in 2015.

The end of the drama over Putin’s attendance also removes a significant distraction from the summit, at which the core Brics nations will debate adding new members and embracing alternatives to the US dollar for trade between their economies.

“President Ramaphosa is confident that the summit will be a success,” his office added on Friday.

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