BRICS leaders will be meeting in South Africa for their annual summit later this month. Absent, however, will be Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
After months of insisting he would attend the annual gathering for the member countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, Putin finally decided against traveling, as the South African government couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t be arrested and sent to The Hague.
The Russian leader’s no-show demonstrates the geopolitical impact of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Putin. The warrant — issued in March for the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children — is already hampering his ability to represent Russia in international gatherings and engage with other world leaders, as South Africa, along with 122 other states, have ratified the Rome Statute and are obliged to arrest Putin if he shows up in their jurisdiction.
For what it’s worth, the South African government did try to find a way out of having to detain Putin. But the largest opposition party sued the government to compel it to arrest him. In a court filing, the South African president then argued Russia had made clear that arresting Putin would be tantamount to a declaration of war. In the end, however, the South African government’s efforts were to no avail. And when they couldn’t provide guarantees of immunity, Putin clearly decided it was too risky to travel.
The Russian leader has so far rejected the ICC’s arrest warrant on the basis that Russia isn’t a party to the Rome Statute. But this doesn’t matter since Ukraine has recognized the court’s jurisdiction, and Putin’s crimes were committed in Ukraine.
All this now makes Russia less effective in achieving its diplomatic and political objectives — it shrinks Putin’s world.
For example, at the Russia-Africa summit last week, only 17 heads of state attended. The last time it was held that number was 43. It’s also noteworthy that Putin has significantly curtained his travel outside Russia since the start of the invasion.
Even governments sympathetic to Russia, like in South Africa, will no longer be able to provide ironclad assurances of immunity for Putin if he wants to visit. Opposition parties, civil society and independent judiciaries mean that the prospect of arrest will always exist in countries party to the ICC — no matter what a government wants.
And there is a salient precedent for this. Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had to flee an African Union summit in South Africa in 2015, after a local court ruled he should be arrested based on an ICC indictment. The South African government had promised al-Bashir he wouldn’t be arrested, but the court had a different view.
So, while the likelihood of Putin ending up in The Hague may seem distant today, this can change. When the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia was set up, no one believed former President Slobodan Milošević would end up in the dock either. But he did.
And even if Putin is never arrested, the warrant itself still serves a purpose. It is testament to the injustice of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Putin’s personal responsibility for the crimes being committed.
The prospect of being arrested will now follow Putin to the grave.