JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Vladimir Putin will be the odd one out when leaders from the BRICS economic bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa meet in Johannesburg this week.
While all the others are set to attend the meetings in person, Putin will dial in on a video call.
The reason? An International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued for the Russian president put summit host South Africa in a sticky situation and ultimately resulted in Putin staying at home.
Here’s what is expected when the group of emerging economies holds three days of meetings starting Tuesday in South Africa’s biggest city and financial hub.
All the leaders from the BRICS countries traditionally attend its summits, and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is making a rare trip overseas to be at the bloc’s first in-person summit since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Putin’s indictment by the International Criminal Court in March charging him with war crimes over the removal of children from Ukraine left South Africa with a significant diplomatic conundrum.
South Africa and Russia share strong ties and have an historically close relationship, but South Africa is also a signatory to the international court’s treaty. That meant it would be obliged to arrest Putin on the ICC warrant if he set foot on South African soil.
South Africa lobbied for months ahead of the summit to persuade Putin to stay at home so it could avoid the problem, South African officials say. South African Deputy President Paul Mashatile said last month that Putin was determined to come before an agreement for him to participate virtually was finally announced.
“It’s almost like you invite your friend to your house, and then arrest them,” Mashatile said at the time. “That’s why for us his not coming is the best solution. The Russians are not happy, though. They want him to come.”
The Kremlin didn’t say if Putin had been intending to travel to South Africa, but stressed he would still play a key role in the main summit meeting Wednesday and address the delegates on a video link.
“We are talking about full-fledged participation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “This will include a speech by the president and, if necessary, participation in an exchange of views.”
The main discussion will be over expanding the five-nation bloc.
China and Russia are in favor of a bigger BRICS and are seen to be pushing for that. Nearly two dozen countries have applied to become new members, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Argentina, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and United Arab Emirates.
But BRICS is a consensus-based organization, and all five members must agree on the principle of expansion and the criteria for new members before it can decide on who gets to join.
Brazil, India and South Africa are seen as less keen on expansion, fearing their voices might get diluted, but the bloc is moving ahead and the five leaders are expected to review proposals on the criteria for expansion.
If the policy is given the go-ahead, a bigger BRICS might be seen as an opportunity for China and Russia to extend their influence.
The possible BRICS expansion is seen by some as part of China and Russia’s effort to challenge the Group of 7 major industrial nations and other Western international institutions.
The bloc insists its focus is not against the West but in looking out for the developing world’s interests.
Still, BRICS has openly criticized what it calls Western dominance of global governance and financial institutions like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the detriment of the developing world.
The group’s New Development Bank has a stated policy of trying to encourage more trade in local currencies and a move away from the dollar.
And BRICS has provided a forum for Chinese and Russian officials to sometimes lambast the West.
South Africa, the current chair of BRICS, says that doesn’t mean the bloc is taking an anti-West turn under the influence of China and Russia amid increased West-East geopolitical tensions.
“There’s an unfortunate narrative being developed that BRICS is anti-West, that BRICS was created as competition to the G-7 or the Global North, and that is incorrect,” said Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s ambassador to BRICS. “What we do seek is to advance the agenda of the Global South.”
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