South Africa’s predicament started last week when the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin over allegations he conducted the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
The warrant means that any country that’s signed up to the 1998 Rome Statute that established the ICC in 1998 must arrest Putin if he steps into their country. South Africa is one of those signatories, and Putin is due to visit later this year.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister of Russia, on Thursday said any country that arrests Putin will be declaring war on Russia.
“Let’s imagine – it’s clear that this is a situation that will never happen – but nevertheless let’s imagine it does,” Medvedev said in a video posted on Telegram. “The current head of a nuclear state arrives on the territory of, say, Germany, and is arrested. What is this? A declaration of war against the Russian Federation.”
He added: “All of our means, rockets and others, will fly on the Bundestag, in the Chancellor’s Office and so on.”
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, South Africa has kept some political ties with Russia. President Cyril Ramaphosa has claimed he believes his country can play a part in peace talks, which is why, he said, South Africa was one of 15 African countries that abstained from a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion.
As a result, Putin had planned to visit South Africa in August to participate in a summit of BRICS nations – a group of emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. But the Russian leader would be smart if he was having second thoughts about attending.
A spokesperson for Ramaphosa acknowledged South Africa’s dilemma, but left room for a final decision. “We are, as the government, cognisant of our legal obligation,” spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said. “However, between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders.”
South Africa has fallen foul of its ICC duties in the past. In 2016, judges at the ICC condemned South Africa for failing in its obligations to arrest the then-wanted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he attended an African leader’s summit in 2015.