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Diplomacy Watch: S. Africa suggests moving BRICS summit to China

Diplomacy Watch: S. Africa suggests moving BRICS summit to China

Pretoria’s balancing act between the West and Russia is looking increasingly precarious.


South Africa may surrender its role as host of this year’s BRICS summit in an effort to dodge international pressure to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, according to reports in South African media this week.

As a party to the Rome Statute — the treaty underpinning the ICC — Pretoria would theoretically be obligated to arrest Putin and send him to the Hague for trial. But China and India would face no such obligation, leading some South African officials to suggest handing the summit to Beijing. (Brazil — the fifth member of the bloc of major developing countries — is also an ICC member, ruling it out as an alternative host.)

The news highlights the delicate balance that South Africa has sought to strike in relation to the war in Ukraine. Despite pressure from Western partners, Pretoria has opted to maintain ties with Moscow and insisted on maintaining a neutral position on the conflict.

Some actions, including the choice to conduct military drills with Russia on the anniversary of the invasion, have already cast that neutrality into question. Granting Putin diplomatic immunity for the summit could further entrench the Western view that Pretoria is really on Moscow’s side, endangering South Africa’s strong trade relations with the United State and Europe.

It’s also unclear whether leaders in Pretoria can legally grant diplomatic immunity in this case. South Africa opted not to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a 2015 visit despite the fact that he was wanted by the ICC for alleged genocide and other war crimes. South African courts found that the government’s decision was unlawful, a precedent that would likely carry over in Putin’s case, and the leading opposition party has already taken legal steps to try to force the government to arrest the Russian leader if he does step foot in the country.

The government’s decision drew significant (though ultimately toothless) blowback from the ICC and its international boosters. Given Putin’s current status as enemy number one in the West, there is reason to believe that the backlash could be far worse this time around.

Regardless of where the BRICS summit takes place, it’s become increasingly clear that South Africa’s approach to the war — characterized by a focus on ending the conflict as soon as possible and an unwillingness to place all blame on Russia — resonates across much of the world.

“A regional conflict has not replaced eradicating global poverty as the world’s greatest global challenge,” Naledi Pandor, Pretoria’s minister of international relations and cooperation, said recently. “This is not the world we hoped for when the Cold War ended.”

The “end-the-war-now” camp will often point to other crises across the world that have gotten less attention in world forums than the conflict in Ukraine. And they’ve got a point: While Ukraine has received lavish funding and media coverage, conflict-plagued states like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia struggle to get aid or attention from the international community, as the Norwegian Refugee Council noted in a recent report.

As the war drags on, this camp has increasingly shown a willingness to take the initiative in finding ways to end the conflict. South Africa joined with Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia last month to create a peace initiative for the war. Pretoria announced Tuesday that the heads of state from each of the six countries will travel to both Kyiv and Moscow later this month.

Their goal, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, is to “secure a commitment from both sides that they too should seek [...] to end this conflict by peaceful means" and to get each party to share their “minimum requirements to end the conflict.” 

“We will be able to give our own point of view as Africans on how we perceive the impact of this war on Africa in terms of food prices, grain, and fuel prices, as well as on Europe and the rest of the world because it has become a rather globalized type of conflict,” Ramaphosa added.

Meanwhile, the Holy See dispatched its peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to Ukraine, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Vatican says Zuppi’s trip was more of a fact-finding mission than an attempt at mediation, noting that conversations with Ukrainian leaders “will certainly be useful for evaluating the steps to continue taking both on a humanitarian level and in the search for paths of a just and lasting peace.”

The twin efforts have earned a mixed reaction from the United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that efforts for a ceasefire in the short term will lead to a “Potemkin peace,” suggesting that any pause in fighting would be a chance for Moscow to regroup and prepare a more effective strategy. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel expanded on that point on Wednesday, when he described the peace proposals as “well-intentioned” but argued that Russia remains unwilling to engage in good faith on a potential end to the war.

But perhaps their more important audience lies farther east. While the Holy See reportedly doesn’t expect to get a warm welcome in Moscow, the African mission includes numerous leaders that the Kremlin can ill afford to frustrate at a time when much of the world has lined up against it. Only time will tell if Ramaphosa and company have the leverage necessary to change Putin’s calculus.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that his country is not opposed to giving weapons to Ukraine via intermediaries, signaling a shift in Belgrade’s historically pro-Russia posture, according to the Financial Times. The change comes after Western leaders backed Serbia during a recent spate of tensions in Kosovo. Vučić also noted that he has not spoken with Putin for over a year — a sharp drop off given that the two leaders had historically called each other every three months or so.

— India will not invite Ukraine to the Group of 20 summit set to take place in New Delhi later this year, according to AP News. Kyiv has often been invited to attend major international meetings since last year’s invasion, especially since the war and related disruptions to the global economy have often been high priorities for multilateral groupings. “It is not something that we have reviewed and it is not something very honestly which we have discussed with anybody,” said Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

— Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto pitched a detailed peace plan at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, with details including a rapid ceasefire and a buffer zone between the warring parties, according to the Financial Times. The proposal drew a sharp rebuke from Ukraine and its backers in the West, who largely panned it as unserious. More surprising was the response from Prabowo’s boss, Indonesian President Joko Widodo. The leader, who is best known as Jokowi, told reporters Tuesday that the plan “was from Mr. Prabowo himself,” adding that he had demanded an explanation from his defense minister.

— A major dam in a Russian-controlled part of Ukraine collapsed on Tuesday, leading Russian and Ukrainian officials to blame each other for the ensuing environmental disaster. The New York Timesreported that a “deliberate explosion” inside the dam was the most likely culprit, but it remains difficult to determine who was responsible for the breach given that neither side appears to have much to gain from such an attack. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to lead a joint investigation into the incident during separate calls with Putin and Zelensky on Wednesday.

— A close ally told the U.S. last June that Ukraine planned to sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline, just three months before the natural gas conduit was rocked by several explosions, according to the Washington Post. The report, which draws on documents from the Discord Leaks, adds further evidence to the theory that Ukraine was behind the attack on the pipeline, which, as the Post noted, “U.S. and Western officials have called a brazen and dangerous act of sabotage on Europe’s energy infrastructure.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said the United States is not yet ready to support an international investigation into the destroyed dam in Ukraine. “We’re still assessing what exactly transpired, and we are determining what steps we can take to support our Ukrainian partners and those who have been impacted and displaced by the flooding,” Patel said.

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Rep. Gerry Connolly, screengrab via

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