South African officials have been grappling for months with a dilemma that has thrust them into the crosshairs of a distant war: the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, a close ally, was prepared to attend a major diplomatic summit in his country, however they would. be legally bound to arrest him because he is wanted by an international tribunal that has accused him of war crimes in Ukraine.

With the August summit fast approaching, it appeared that South Africa had to choose between burning bridges with Russia or damaging relations with the United States and other Western nations, major trading partners who were increasingly irritated by South Africa’s warm relations with Moscow.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Putin gave South Africa a way out.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Mr. Putin, by “agreement,” had decided not to attend the summit in person, and would send his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in his place. Russian state media said Mr Putin would participate via video conference in the summit, a long-planned meeting of the heads of state of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a bloc known as BRICS.

While this decision eases South Africa’s immediate dilemma, the country continues to walk a precarious and very public tightrope as it tries to maintain strong ties with each of its superpower allies when they are at odds with one another.

South Africa has faced withering criticism from the United States for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. US officials have also accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia, a claim the government has denied and which Mr Ramaphosa said was being investigated.

Critics at home have accused Mr Ramaphosa, who faces a tough re-election contest next year, of taking a soft stance on Russia that could hurt South Africa economically. American lawmakers and government officials have suggested that the United States consider canceling trade benefits for South Africa and rethinking the alliance between the countries all together. Hosting Mr. Putin would only inflame those demands.

Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia at a meeting in Cape Town last month.Credit…Nic Bothma/Reuters

Mr. Putin is the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of being responsible for the abduction of Ukrainian children and their deportation to Russia. As a signatory to the court, South Africa would be required to arrest the Russian president if he set foot on its soil.

However, Mr Putin has insisted for months that he will attend the summit in person, rejecting requests to stay at home or attend by video. But he softened his stance after the instability sparked last month by the brief uprising organized by the leader of the Wagner network, Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to a South African government official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Mr. Putin “has become easier to persuade because of the recent domestic problems he has,” the official said.

Mr Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, said he did not know whether the rebellion had influenced Mr Putin’s decision but that it was the result of lengthy deliberations.

South African officials have said in recent months that they fear the question of Mr Putin’s attendance at the BRICS meeting threatens to overshadow the agenda. BRICS created itself as an alternative to a world order centered on the United States and Europe, and a voice for nations that are not among the superpowers of the world.

BRICS pushed for more developing countries to have seats in the UN Security Council, for rich nations to give more funding to developing countries to deal with climate change, and for a fairer distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

As the bloc’s newest and smallest member, South Africa is trying to wield more influence globally and shape itself as the voice of Africa, analysts say.

South African officials have accused Western nations of having a double standard in calling for Mr. Putin to be arrested for war crimes in Ukraine while avoiding action by the international criminal court over the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ukrainian protesters in Cape Town during BRICS meetings last month.Credit…Nardus Engelbrecht/Associated Press

Mr Ramaphosa’s political party, the African National Congress, said as early as Wednesday morning that it wanted Mr Putin to attend the summit. But the party applauded the final result. It will “let the BRICS summit focus on the pressing issues in the geopolitical situation,” Mahlengi Bhengu, the ANC’s national spokesperson, told a news conference on Wednesday.

While many who wished Mr. Putin would attend may be disappointed, she said, “I do think wisdom may have prevailed among our chiefs.”

Mr Ramaphosa warned in a court affidavit released on Tuesday that his country could suffer severe consequences if it arrested Mr Putin. Russia “made it clear” that an arrest “would be a declaration of war,” Mr Ramaphosa said in the 32-page affidavit.

The Kremlin has denied making any direct threats to South Africa, but on Wednesday its spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters that “it is absolutely clear to everyone what an attempt to invade the Russian leader means.”

South Africa’s largest opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance, has asked a court in Pretoria, the nation’s executive capital, to compel the government to arrest Mr Putin if he attends the summit, scheduled for 22-24 a of August

Credit…Rodger Bosch/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The leader of the alliance, John Steenhuisen, praised Wednesday’s announcement.

“It avoids a possible international crisis,” he said.

In 2015, South Africa faced international condemnation when it refused to arrest the then president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was wanted by the international court on charges of war crimes and genocide stemming from atrocities in the western province of Darfur. South Africa allowed Mr. al-Bashir to fly in and out of Johannesburg unhindered for an African Union meeting. He is still wanted by the court.

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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