Russian ambassador says he has no indication Putin will not visit SA
Russia’s ambassador to South Africa says he has had no indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not visit South Africa in August to attend the BRICS summit.
When eNCA’s Annika Larsen, in an interview broadcast on Tuesday night, asked Russian ambassador Ilya Rogachev if Vladimir Putin was coming to SA, he replied:
“Well, he accepted the invitation by President Cyril Ramaphosa.”
The South African government has not announced that Putin will visit South Africa for the summit. Though it has confirmed that he has been officially invited, along with the other BRICS leaders, it has also said it is exploring the legal implications of Putin’s attendance.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant against Putin for the alleged war crime of abducting about 13,000 Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia. As an ICC member, South Africa would probably be obliged to arrest Putin if he sets foot in the country.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Vladimir Putin in South Africa: A diplomatic and legal dilemma for the government
However, Rogachev disputed this interpretation in the eNCA interview. He insisted that under international law, heads of state enjoy absolute immunity from criminal arrest or prosecution by other states, even under the ICC.
Larsen put it to him that the South African government had tried to make that case when then Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir – also a fugitive from ICC justice – visited South Africa in 2015. But the courts had held that the customary heads of state immunity did not apply to ICC warrants.
“No, it does,” Rogachev replied. “This is customary international law. It should be applied under the ICC .”
Larsen then asked him if the South African and Russian governments had had discussions to establish that Putin would not be arrested if he came to South Africa.
“Not to my knowledge,” he replied.
“So has an assurance been given by South Africa or not?” Larsen asked.
“We haven’t asked yet,” Rogachev replied.
“Do you intend asking?”
“I don’t know.”
“You must know.”
“No, I’m being honest with you. For us, the situation is very clear… the Rome Statute (which governs the ICC) – being an international treaty and Russia not being part of it – this treaty cannot create duties and obligations for the Russian state. It is very simple.”
But Larsen put it to him that it created obligations for South Africa as a signatory to the ICC treaty.
“Yes, you have obligations, but there is provision in international law that heads of state and government have immunity against criminal jurisdiction of other states,” Rogachev replied.
“There is such a provision in the statute itself,” he added. He was apparently referring to Article 98 of the Rome Statute, which does uphold customary immunity for sitting heads of state in certain circumstances. These have become controversial.
In any case, Rogachev defended the removal of Ukrainian children to Russia, saying this had been done for their safety.
“We have tried to evacuate everybody from these dangerous areas. Of course, the absolute majority of kids went in with their families, with adults.
“But there are several thousand that were unaccompanied, either orphaned or simply lost. They were taken good care of. And they were taken to safe areas in the Russian Federation. Including in the resorts of Crimea. And if their families reappear, the families are reunited. And this process is going on.”
ICC indictment ‘one-sided’
Rogachev claimed the ICC indictment of Putin had been one-sided because the ICC had never asked for any evidence from Russia.
“And we are certain that it is politically motivated… politically advised. It is being used as a tool to put pressure on some other countries, beginning with the Russian Federation, of course, but also others like South Africa.”
Rosatom ‘ready’ to renovate Eskom power stations
On another controversial issue, Larsen asked Rogachev to confirm reports that the Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom was in talks with South Africa about nuclear energy, and also about Rosatom repairing and upgrading Eskom’s coal-fired power stations.
He replied that “Rosatom is ready and very much interested in participating in all kinds of renovation in South Africa. Rosatom technologies are the best in the world currently.”
Larsen also asked him if the donations of several Russian businessmen to the ANC were an attempt to influence South African politics.
“Well, I know of just one businessman contributing any significant amount of money, which is less than $1-million, in any case, to the ANC,” Rogachev replied. This was an apparent reference to the oligarch Viktor Vekselberg who jointly owns United Manganese of Kalahari with the ANC-owned company Chancellor House, and has contributed to ANC funds.
“If there is an attempt to influence anything, then it is not political,” Rogachev said.
Putin ‘unlikely’ to deploy nukes in Ukraine
Putin and senior members of his government have several times during the 14 months of the war in Ukraine threatened to deploy nuclear weapons, and Larsen asked Rogachev if Putin might “push the nuclear button” if the war escalated.
Rogachev first asked her to define exactly what she meant by escalation. But then he said he did not predict Russia deploying nuclear weapons.
“Our military strategy is very clear about the circumstances when the use of nuclear arms is possible. And these are two situations. First, there is an attack or an imminent nuclear attack against Russia. Or there are such military circumstances that threaten the very existence of the Russian Federation. Those are the only two situations when nukes can be used. I personally do not foresee this coming, such circumstances.”
Larsen also asked Rogachev why he thought South Africa had risked its good relations with the US and other Nato states by abstaining from several United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think South Africa and South African diplomacy in particular stands for its principles, and this commands a lot of respect,” he replied.
When Larsen asked him why Russia had chosen to conduct a controversial joint naval exercise with South Africa and China in South African waters in February, Rogachev said: “South Africa is our reliable partner. Our navy has to have drills sometimes. That was quite a long time ago. I don’t understand why it caused so much fuss.”
“Because it showed that South Africa is not non-aligned. That it is very much a key strategic ally of Russia and it’s a very sensitive time,” Larsen replied.
“South Africa has had drills with the US,” Rogachev said. “I don’t remember such kind of a protest. And the US is almost constantly at war with somebody, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or somebody else. But it’s a political perception. Let’s treat all kinds of military drills in the same way.”
Rogachev agreed that Russia’s good relations with the South African government had much to do with the nostalgia of older ANC members for the Soviet Union’s support for the ANC’s liberation struggle.
He added: “Today, what brings us together are the fundamentals of Russian and South African foreign policy. That is, we are partisans of the multipolar world against the domination of a state or a group of states in favour of international law. Multilateral institutions, in particular the United Nations, also bring us closer.”
Rogachev said apart from USSR support for the liberation struggle, Russia had also been “compassionate with the Boers in the Anglo-Boer war”.
The friendship with the ANC was about communist ideology and socialist solidarity, but also about the fact that Russia was a value-driven society.
Larsen said bringing up morality seemed inappropriate in light of the recent video circulating of Russian soldiers beheading two Ukrainian soldiers. Rogachev responded that one would have to establish if that video was real or fake.
“Ninety percent of what was shown by the media, by CNN, BBC, Sky News and others, were fakes. Or half-truths.”
He said there were also many instances of Russian prisoners of war being killed, executed and tortured.
“I didn’t see a lot of these episodes broadcast by the Western media, by the mainstream media.”
However, he also acknowledged that crimes could have been committed as the violence of war “pushes people to commit atrocities”.
Yet, he also insisted that Russia was treating prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions.
He compared the UN-estimated 8,000+ Ukrainian civilians killed in this war with the one million civilians he said had been killed during roughly the same period after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
‘Special military operation’
“I think it shows how reserved our military is. It is a special military operation, not war, because it is very limited. So we interfered in order to preempt the strike that was coming against the people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (in eastern Ukraine). And the documents that were seized during this operation, they prove it. That the Ukrainian army, which was trained by Nato, equipped by Nato, armed with Nato arms, was about to attack the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics and then perhaps go to Crimea.
“That means to attack Russia itself. So the operation was started to preempt this strike and basically to end the war.”
Rogachev did not mention that the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces of eastern Ukraine and the southern territory of Crimea were all fully part of Ukraine until Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and provided military and other support to pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk to establish their “people’s republics”.
His claim that Russia had attacked Ukraine to preempt a strike against Luhansk and Donetsk is one of several different justifications Russia has given for its invasion, including toppling a “neo-Nazi” regime.
He also characterised the war in Ukraine as a “proxy war” by Nato against Russia. DM