Beyond Ukraine: Assessing the potential scenarios of Putin's South Africa visit

Last updated:
Apr 14, 2023

On 17 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest for war crimes in Ukraine, specifically the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. As the ICC has no means to arrest Putin on its own, not having its own police force, it relies on states to make the arrests on its behalf.

Putin is scheduled to travel to Durban in August this year to attend a BRICs summit, consisting of five leading emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. However, as South Africa was one of the 123 countries to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC in 1998, it has a legal obligation to arrest Putin should he enter the country.

This places the South African government in a difficult position, having so far maintained neutrality regarding the Ukraine war. South Africa is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, formed during the Cold War, meaning that it is not formally aligned with or against any major superpower or power bloc.

This report assesses the potential scenarios regarding Putin’s upcoming trip to South Africa and the possible geopolitical implications of each.

Scenario One: Putin attends the conference and is arrested by South African authorities.

As South Africa has signed the Rome Statute, they are legally required to arrest Putin should he enter South Africa’s jurisdiction. As such, it is reasonable to believe that South Africa will honour its duties and carry out the arrest should Putin travel to the summit in August.

South Africa has many allies on the international stage. The nation’s strong relationship with the West was clearly demonstrated earlier this year when President Ramaphosa was the first foreign leader to be invited by the newly crowned King Charles to visit the UK. Naturally, Ramaphosa will be under significant pressure from the West to arrest Putin should he attend the summit, and the President’s desire to maintain these positive relations may influence him to uphold his responsibilities to the ICC.

A senior Russian politician, Dmitry Medvedev, has threatened that any country who arrests Putin will be declaring war on Russia. Being a nuclear power, this is a threat that would not be received lightly by a nation such as South Africa. If they were to carry out the arrest, there is no doubt that tensions between the two nations would immediately spike. Causing animosity with such a hostile and volatile global power would pose a threat to South Africa’s security and risk destabilising the region.

It would also have wider implications for South Africa’s relationship with, and role within, BRICs, potentially putting strain on its relationship with other nations such as China, one of Russia’s close allies. China currently invests heavily in South Africa, and this investment has contributed to the rapid economic growth South Africa has experienced in recent decades. If China stops this investment, it would likely be detrimental to South Africa’s future development, exacerbating its current social issues and putting further strain on its population.

Finally, arresting Putin would suggest that South Africa’s overarching allegiance lies with the West and potentially cause a shift in the current international order in which South Africa is seen as neutral, if not slightly aligned with the East.

Scenario Two: Putin does not attend the conference – either by his own choice or South Africa’s request.

Due to their desire to maintain neutral, South African officials may advise Putin not to attend the BRICs summit in person and instead, either send a representative or attend virtually.

If Putin were to physically attend, it would attract intense global attention to South Africa and its leaders, putting them in a difficult and uncomfortable situation that they would rather avoid. It is possible that discussions will take place between the two nations before August, in an attempt to come to a solution which minimises the impact and scrutiny on South African officials.

Alternatively, Putin may make the unilateral decision not to attend the summit to maintain his personal safety, as well as to avoid risking Russia’s relationship with South Africa by from the possible fallout. However, while this would alleviate the pressure from Ramaphosa, Putin’s decision not to attend may indicate to international observers that the ICC’s accusation holds weight and even more, that he fears it. This could diminish his credibility and ‘strongman’ image, making Putin consider the possibility that not going could pose a risk.

This is particularly relevant to the Russian domestic population, who are becoming increasingly tiresome of compulsory mobilisation and are expressing growing dissatisfaction with the Kremlin.

Scenario Three: Putin attends the conference and is not arrested.

The final scenario is that Putin will go ahead with his visit to South Africa and that the South African authorities will fail to conduct the arrest. South Africa and Russia have long been allies, with Russia providing financial and military support to the now-governing African National Congress (ANC) during their liberation struggle under Apartheid. As a result, the two nations have deep ties, and many in South Africa feel indebted to Russia for supporting the black minority at a time when Western nations turned a blind eye.

South Africa has consistently resisted pressure to impose sanctions on or cut ties with Russia. It was one of the 35 nations to abstain from condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine in a UN vote last October, and in December, allowed for a US-sanctioned Russian vessel to dock near Cape Town, triggering significant US criticism. In February this year, South Africa, Russia and China carried out joint military drills in the Indian Ocean, coinciding with the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Such actions increasingly contradict South Africa’s stated neutrality and suggest that it is more supportive of Russia than initially claimed. Their joint membership in BRICs also demonstrates the bond between the two nations, which South Africa will be conscious to maintain.

This also would not be the first time that South Africa has ignored an arrest warrant issued by the ICC. In 2015, South Africa failed to arrest Sudan’s former President Al-Bashir when he visited the country who was wanted by the ICC for his war crimes in Darfur. As a result of the disagreement between South Africa and the ICC, the South African government made an effort to withdraw from the ICC. However, their attempt was deemed “unconstitutional and invalid” by the South African High Court, and the withdrawal was overturned. From this, South African officials may once again violate ICC regulations, especially given that they received no severe repercussions for their lack of cooperation in the Al-Bashir case.

The attempted withdrawal from the ICC by the ANC raises questions that the South African government may not be fully committed to the ICC. South Africa has previously criticised the ICC for undermining its sovereignty and its ability to work towards the “peaceful resolution of conflicts” by forcing it to arrest individuals against its will. Some South African political ministers have also criticised the ICC for being biased by reprimanding members from non-Western and less-developed countries whilst turning a blind eye to the actions carried out by the Bush and Blair administrations in Iraq. Such a view threatens to increase tensions between the Global North and Global South and fosters divisions between pro-Western and anti-Western nations.

In the event that South Africa does not detain Putin during his planned visit, it is highly likely that there will be broader implications on both a domestic and international scale. South Africa’s constitution states that the government must follow court orders, which includes those of the ICC. To go against its own constitution would demonstrate to its citizens that the government is willing to ignore the laws on which its civil society is based, posing a wider threat to South Africa’s democracy and the legitimacy of its institutions. It may also turn many citizens against the ANC if they are seen to be so openly sided with Russia, which could be critical for the party in the lead up to the country’s general elections in 2024.

Internationally, it would no doubt lead to widespread criticism of South Africa by the West and strain existing relations. Since most of South Africa’s crucial trade partners belong to the Western bloc, any tension in these ties could lead to a reluctance to maintain positive connections. Additionally, it could imply that South Africa prioritises its loyalty to Russia over its alliance with the West, which could fuel distrust and isolate South Africa.

Furthermore, if a member state consistently disregards the ICC’s directives, it may weaken the organisation’s authority, suggesting that it lacks any real influence over its members. The decision would demonstrate to the world that there is no tangible deterrent for states or other actors to carry out war crimes such as those executed by Putin. Overall, this presents a concerning future for the current international order and the ICC’s ability to uphold peace and justice on an international level.


Although South Africa has so far managed to remain neutral on the Ukraine war, this will likely be challenged come August. Addressing Putin’s impending visit, a spokesman for Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa is “as the government, cognisant of our legal obligation…however, between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders,” highlighting their desire to remain neutral.

Ultimately, South Africa is confronted with a crucial choice that has the potential to greatly affect its standing in the global community and its reputation on a global scale.

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