Any attempt to arrest Vladimir Putin during his visit to South Africa would be a declaration of war against Russia, the country’s president has said.
Cyril Ramaphosa issued the warning a few weeks before an international meeting in Johannesburg, to which the Russian president is invited.
But if Mr. Putin leaves Russian soil, he will be subject to an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
South Africa is a signatory to the ICC and should therefore assist in his arrest.
Yet he has refused to honor that obligation in the past – allowing safe passage in 2015 for then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was wanted for war crimes against his own people.
Mr Putin was invited to South Africa in August, when the country hosts a summit for members of Brics countries – an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This block of fast-growing economies is seen by some as an alternative to the G7 group of advanced economies.
South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has gone to court to try to force the authorities to arrest Mr Putin if he sets foot in the country.
Court documents reveal that President Ramaphosa is strongly opposed to such a move, saying national security is at stake.
“South Africa has obvious problems with executing a request for the arrest and surrender of President Putin,” he said in an affidavit.
“Russia has made it clear that the arrest of its sitting president would be a declaration of war. It would be against our constitution to risk engaging in war with Russia.”
President Ramaphosa added that South Africa is one of many African countries holding talks with Russia and Ukraine “with a view to ending the war”, and that trying to arrest Mr Putin would be counterproductive.
Last month saw a peace mission in European nations, where African presidents hoped to bring Ukraine and Russia to the table, but ultimately failed.
Much has been made of the reluctance of African nations to support UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Correspondents say the reasons vary by nation – whether it’s South Africa’s anti-apartheid ties with the Soviet Union, or Mali’s current reliance on Russian mercenaries Wagner to fight jihadists.
There are also economic ties between Russia and African nations, especially in South Africa.
A sanctioned Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, is said to be one of the biggest donors to South Africa’s ruling party – the African National Congress (ANC).