JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be attending an economic summit in Johannesburg next month, South Africa's government said Wednesday. That lets the summit's host country breathe a sigh of relief from a critical legal dilemma of whether to act on an international arrest warrant issued for the Russian leader.
"By mutual agreement, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will not attend the Summit but the Russian Federation will be represented by Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov," the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.
A Kremlin spokesman confirmed to Russian state media Ria Novosti that Lavrov will attend in person, and said Putin will have "full participation" in the conference remotely by video.
The summit in late August will bring together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — a group of economies known as BRICS — and most of them will send their top leaders.
The question of whether Putin would show up in person created a headache for South Africa. It is a signatory of the International Criminal Court, which issued the arrest warrant for Putin in March for alleged war crimes committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In South African court papers made public on Tuesday, Ramaphosa said that arresting Putin would "risk engaging in war with Russia."
Ramaphosa's governing party has close relations with Moscow and has taken an officially neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. His government has repeatedly abstained in United Nations votes to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and to call for an end to the war.
South Africa infuriated many countries, including the United States, when it hosted and took part in naval exercises with Russia and China in February, coinciding with the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
In May, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, accused the country of "arming" Russia, calling it "fundamentally unacceptable."
The South African government said it would investigate his allegations, with a foreign ministry spokesperson saying in a tweet that government weapons authorities had "no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question."
In June, Ramaphosa led a delegation of African leaders to Ukraine and Russia, in an effort initiate peace talks.
Ramaphosa has argued that South Africa refuses to be drawn into taking sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, insisting on a position of nonalignment — with many, including the U.S questioning its neutrality.