Pretoria’s ‘get out of jail free’ card

Putin’s stay-away from the BRICS summit means Pretoria can remain on favourable terms with Russia without antagonising key Western partners.

After months of speculation, a decision has finally been made – Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t attend the August BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit in South Africa. This ‘get out of jail free’ card removes Pretoria’s need for a decision on this awkward diplomatic and legal dilemma.

In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine after February 2022. As a signatory to the ICC’s Rome Statute, and owing to the country’s domestication of that statute, South Africa is obliged to arrest Putin if he arrives in the country.

This meant South Africa faced a unique situation among its BRICS peers. Neither China nor India have signed the Rome Statute. Although Brazil is a member, it didn’t have to reckon with the dilemma since it wasn’t hosting the meeting.

Apart from the unequivocal legal position, which requires South Africa to execute the arrest warrant, there are compelling reasons to suggest that a ‘stay-away’ was always Putin’s most likely decision. It provided a face-saving option for all parties.

There are compelling reasons to suggest that a stay-away was always Putin’s most likely decision

First, there’s Putin’s notorious aversion to international travel. Since the war began in Ukraine, Putin hasn’t left Europe or Central Asia. His last noteworthy trip outside these bounds was in October 2021 when he travelled to Brunei.

Second, recent mutinous events in Russia by the Wagner group provide a legitimate reason for Putin to stay home. Leaving Moscow amid a hostile domestic environment and potential security threats could be considered reckless.

Third, and arguably most importantly – the security risk. There was not enough to gain from a visit to South Africa that would expose Putin to the uncertain actions of a foreign government and its independent courts on foreign soil.

Diplomatically, Pretoria successfully (albeit sometimes with mixed messages) followed well-established protocol by leaving the decision to Moscow. This allowed it to remain on favourable terms with Russia without antagonising key Western partners. Indeed, both Moscow and Pretoria were coy about the visit, issuing vague, non-committal statements.

Drawing out the decision allowed Moscow to extract maximum political mileage from the situation. Indeed, some sources who requested anonymity told ISS Today that Putin never intended to come. The entire episode, they said, was being used for leverage and to send a signal to Western powers around the gravitas and appeal of Russia in the global south.

For South Africa, there are also strong political and economic reasons why the stay-away is the preferred option. The decision allows Pretoria to spin the outcome in a favourable light.

Politically, it means President Cyril Ramaphosa, a self-proclaimed constitutionalist, can maintain credibility. He has positioned his administration as one that respects the rule of law, in contrast to that of his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

Drawing out the decision allowed Moscow to extract maximum political mileage from the situation

The Phala Phala scandal had already weakened Ramaphosa’s standing, and ignoring the precedent set by the 2015 Omar al-Bashir debacle would significantly dent his credibility and lead to an economic backlash. South Africa’s deliberate neglect of its international and domestic obligation to arrest ICC suspect al-Bashir when he attended an African Union summit in Johannesburg was deemed illegal and unethical by the country’s courts.

The stay-away option allows Ramaphosa to short-circuit these issues and balance competing forces. These forces are both internal, in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), where sentiment is tilted towards Moscow, and external, with the business and international community drawing a red line around Putin’s potential visit. The economic risks associated with the visit meant that, despite all the rhetoric, the administration was unlikely to pursue a course of action tantamount to economic sabotage.

Financial markets’ opposition to South Africa’s Russia stance is clear. The rand plunged by nearly 2.4% to a record low of R19.51 to the US$ in May after United States (US) Ambassador Reuben Brigety accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia.

The reaction to flouting international law in the case of an accused as prominent as Putin would have been even more severe, with inflationary risks from a weaker rand a key consequence. A sell-off of South African assets and a rise in the cost of funding would also have occurred, cementing geopolitical risk aversion among investors.

US congressional personnel previously warned that South African overtures to Russia would jeopardise the country’s privileges under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), two-way trade and the cascade of US foreign direct investment. This amounts to nearly US$21 billion in trade and US$7 billion annually in capital inflows, says the US Trade Representative.

Any further diplomatic missteps risk jeopardising South Africa’s trade and investment from the West

Such a threat isn’t idle or simply a partisan concern. Lawmakers from all sides have called for a review of Washington’s relationship with Pretoria, including AGOA and other investment commitments, such as those underlying the Just Energy Transition Plan.

Indirect sanctions would also have been a possibility. As the South African Reserve Bank said in May, Putin’s arrival would have left the country open to penalties such as exclusion from various Western payment platforms and protocols. This would complicate cross-border transactions to the detriment of the financial sector.

South Africa has recently emerged as a key state in a contest between great powers. The current situation therefore has relevance far beyond Putin’s now-cancelled visit and reflects global geopolitical tensions. The pandemic and the Ukraine war have exposed the dissonance between the global north and south, with a desire for a fairer and more equitable global financial and political architecture at the heart of the developing world’s considerations.

In this context, and as a BRICS member, South Africa must reconcile its ideological aspirations and economic realities. Despite the ruling party’s favourable position towards Russia, Moscow is a comparatively small investor in the country. Any further diplomatic missteps risk jeopardising trade and investment from the West, which the South African economy relies heavily on.

In the short term, Pretoria has averted a high-stakes game of chicken. Over the longer term, it must balance competing and often contradictory considerations to maximise strategic leverage and remain relevant in a shifting world order.

Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant, Director at Signal Risk and Menzi Ndhlovu, Senior Country Risk and Political Risk Analyst, Signal Risk

Image: © The Office of the President of the Russian Federation

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