Over a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine fragmented the world’s geopolitical landscape, the strength of President Vladimir V. Putin’s friendships faces a test: Will world leaders who intended to host him in the coming months still be willing to welcome a wanted man?
The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Mr. Putin, accusing him of bearing criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, could thrust his allies into thorny domestic and foreign legal disputes, whether or not their countries are members of the court, international relations experts say.
Many governments staked out their positions just days after the warrant was issued. Germany, like several other I.C.C. member states within the West’s core coalition, was unequivocal in saying it would arrest Mr. Putin and send him to The Hague if he were to enter its territory, as it is obligated to do under the requirements of being party to the court.
At least one Russian ally and I.C.C. member, Hungary, declared the opposite, claiming it would not enforce the warrant because it would not have grounds to arrest Mr. Putin under Hungarian law.
The chances that Mr. Putin could stand trial soon are low. Still, the Kremlin raised the stakes with a pre-emptive warning, announcing that Moscow would consider an arrest of Mr. Putin overseas to be a declaration of war. The Kremlin has also threatened an ally, Armenia, over its moves to join the court, Russian state-owned news agencies reported.
South Africa, an I.C.C. member state, faces particular scrutiny because it has already invited Mr. Putin to the annual summit of BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — that will be held in the coastal city of Durban this August.
The South African government has leaned into longstanding ties with Moscow since the invasion, and it drew criticism from the United States for holding naval drills with Russia and China in February.
India, another longtime ally of Moscow, could also face scrutiny come September, when it will host the Group of 20 summit. India is not party to the I.C.C., so it will not be under the same legal pressure to arrest Mr. Putin, if he attends, as South Africa. But both nations’ decisions will speak volumes about how they, as emerging powers, want to be perceived, said Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, a departmental lecturer in international relations at the University of Oxford.
The BRICS countries have positioned themselves as an alternative to Western-dominated alliances, and Mr. Gurmendi said that their response to Mr. Putin’s arrest warrant could become an early example of the bloc’s becoming “an actual force in international affairs.”
Indian officials have so far stayed silent on how they might approach Mr. Putin’s potential visit to their country in September, and China, which, like Russia, is not a member of the I.C.C., has expressed disapproval about the court’s decision to issue a warrant.
Officials in Brazil, which is a member of the court, have kept their comments ambiguous.
But while South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said in a radio interview that her ministry was “awaiting a refreshed legal opinion on the matter,” she gave a glowing endorsement of her nation’s relationship with Russia on Thursday.
“We have made it clear that Russia is a friend,” Ms. Pandor said during a meeting in Pretoria with Russia’s minister of natural resources that was part of regular economic cooperation between the countries.
She highlighted the help received from the Soviet Union in the fight against apartheid, adding, “While we are friends with many all over the world, we cannot become sudden enemies at the demand of others.”
South Africa’s cabinet has not yet received the legal opinion on the matter from the Foreign Ministry and has not yet discussed what to do regarding Mr. Putin, one of the president’s top ministers, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said on Thursday.
Much of the government’s handling of the question of what to do about Mr. Putin seems to be entangled in internal factional politics, said Leaza Jernberg, an international relations analyst in Johannesburg. The African National Congress, the governing party since the end of apartheid, is deeply divided, and some in the party and in the government remain staunchly loyal to Russia, she said.
The country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has said that South African officials should withdraw Mr. Putin’s invitation if they would be unwilling to arrest him. Allowing him into South Africa without arrest could tarnish the country’s reputation and lead to economic repercussions from allies, like sanctions, said Darren Bergman, a member of Parliament with the Democratic Alliance who works on international relations.
South Africa is no stranger to this dilemma.
It was at the center of a media circus in 2015 when Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then the Sudanese president, attended an African Union meeting in Johannesburg while he was under an I.C.C. warrant for war crimes, genocide and other charges linked to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, where nearly 300,000 people were killed.
At the convention center, Mr. Bashir sat in open sessions, staring stoically as photographers crowded around him. He also posed for a group photograph with the other leaders, who would not be drawn into questions about the warrant.
At a court hearing seeking to compel South Africa to arrest Mr. Bashir, lawyers for the government argued that the Sudanese leader had diplomatic immunity and attended the meeting as a guest of the African Union. The court eventually ruled that South African officials were obliged to execute the arrest — but Mr. Bashir had already left the country on his presidential jet from a military base.
That Mr. Bashir, who was ousted from power after a popular uprising in 2019, remains at large is a prominent example of the I.C.C.’s limitations. But at the time, Ms. Jernberg said, South Africa had the cover of arguing that it was standing in solidarity with other African nations, who felt that their leaders were often unfairly targeted.
Mr. Putin’s case could play out very differently. In part because the war in Ukraine threatened Europe’s security, it mobilized international criminal justice efforts in a way that “none of us in the human rights and accountability space have seen before,” said Gissou Nia, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project.
Mr. Putin’s stronger presence in global affairs could also create avenues for diplomatic pressures in a way that Mr. Bashir’s case did not. A potential boycott from the leaders of major democracies of the Group of 20 summit, for example, could pose a global embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who would then have to decide whether his relationship with Mr. Putin was worth it, Ms. Nia said.
“I can’t imagine,” she added, “that the leaders of world democracies are very keen to appear in photo ops with Putin.”
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