Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend a BRICS nations summit in South Africa next month, the country’s presidency said on Wednesday, ending months of speculation he could be detained.
Putin’s potential visit has been a thorny diplomatic issue for Pretoria.
The Russian leader is the target of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant — a provision that South Africa as an ICC member would be expected to implement were he to set foot in the country.
“By mutual agreement, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will not attend the summit,” Vincent Magwenya, a spokesman for President Cyril Ramaphosa, said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will instead represent Russia, Magwenya said.
The decision follows “a number of consultations” held by Ramaphosa in recent months, the most recent of which took place last night, he added.
South Africa is the current chair of the BRICS group, a gathering of heavyweights that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China, and which sees itself as a counterweight to Western economic domination.
Putin was formally invited to a BRICS summit due to take place in Johannesburg between August 22 and 24, but Pretoria has been under heavy domestic and international pressure not to host him.
The other countries’ leaders will all be in attendance, Magwenya said.
“President Ramaphosa is confident that the Summit will be a success and calls on the nation to extend the necessary hospitality to the many delegates who will arrive from various parts of the continent and the globe,” he said.
Putin is sought by the ICC over accusations that Russia unlawfully deported Ukrainian children.
In court papers released on Tuesday, Ramaphosa wrote that arresting him would have amounted to a declaration of war on Russia.
The assessment was given in an affidavit responding to an application by the country’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which aimed at forcing the government’s hand and ensuring the Kremlin leader was handed over to the ICC if he were to arrive.
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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked if the war wording was used in talks between the two nations.
“No, it did not sound that way,” he said.
“In this world, it is absolutely clear to everyone what an attempt to encroach on the head of the Russian state would mean.
“That is why there is no need to explain anything to anyone on this,” Peskov added.
The affidavit revealed South Africa was seeking an exemption under ICC rules, arguing that enacting the arrest could have threatened the “security, peace and order of the state”.
Pretoria has long said it wants to stay neutral over the war in Ukraine but has been accused by critics of tilting towards Moscow.
Some feared hosting Putin could have been read as a signal of support for Russia and jeopardised South Africa’s strong economic and trade relations with the United States and Europe.
Trade with Russia is much smaller, but their ties date back decades to when the Kremlin supported the ruling African National Congress party during the struggle against apartheid.
In recent local media interviews, South African Deputy President Paul Mashatile said the government had been trying to persuade Putin not to come.