- The International Criminal Court’s war crimes arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin could weaken Russia’s influence in Africa.
- Like Russia, the United States is attempting to strengthen its relationship with African nations.
- Putin’s arrest warrant has the potential to boost China’s appeal to Africa.
- African leaders could face scrutiny if they decide to attend a summit in Russia this summer.
The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) war crimes arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin has numerous potential consequences, including Russia potentially losing valuable ground in the wooing of Africa.
“The ICC warrant adds to the weakening of Russian influence globally and in Africa,” Jonathan Katz, the director of democracy initiatives and a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Newsweek .
In recent months, both the United States and Russia have increased their efforts to court African nations . Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Mali, Mauritania and Sudan at the beginning of February, after a previous trip that ended only days earlier found him in Angola, Eswatini, Eritrea and South Africa. During his time on the continent, Lavrov touted Russia’s “good neighborly relations” with Africa.
Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to be in Ghana on March 26 before heading to Tanzania and Zambia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger in the middle of March, following Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen ‘s 10-day trip to Africa in January.
As for Putin, he delivered a televised address on March 20 to representatives from African nations and said relations with Africa were a “priority” for Russia. But what he may not be able to do—thanks to the ICC’s arrest warrant—is actually visit Africa, which President Joe Biden is expected to do later this year.
The question of whether or not to arrest Putin has already been addressed by some world leaders. Numerous European officials have said they would honor the ICC warrant—which accuses Putin of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia—and detain him if he entered their territories.
South Africa, which has maintained a neutral stance on the Ukraine war, is publicly struggling with such a decision. The country is hosting August’s BRICS summit, which will also be attended by Brazil, Russia, India and China, and Putin was expected to attend. On March 24, South Africa’s international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, said his government had sought legal advice regarding the warrant should Putin visit.
Katz said the warrant “certainly has an impact on Putin diplomatically. The charge against him—in essence, kidnapping children—is egregious, and any world leader that is willing to welcome Mr. Putin is reprehensible.”
He continued: “There’s a real hope that governments that are parties to the ICC will arrest Mr. Putin if he steps foot in another country.”
Thirty-three African countries were signatories to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, including South Africa.
During his March 20 address, Putin vowed to continue supplying Africa with grain if Russia drops its agreement with Ukraine to allow exports from Black Sea ports. He even offered free grain to African countries in need should the deal fall apart. That gesture was an example of the importance Russia has placed on Africa, where Moscow also exports arms and the paramilitary Wagner Group has lucrative mining projects.
Though Putin has increased efforts to build on his relationships in Africa, Russia has enjoyed favor on the continent going back to the days of the Soviet Union. As a result, many African nations have stayed neutral on the Ukraine war.
The Biden administration would like to temper Russia’s influence in Africa since the U.S., as well as China, is said to want minerals that can be used for green energy and they are plentiful in Africa.
In fact, Putin should also be worrying about how the warrant could further boost China’s appeal to Africa, according to University of New Hampshire political science professor Lawrence Reardon.
“The question is whether African states need Russia,” he told Newsweek . “Yes, Russia has some wheat and petroleum. But often the African countries are looking at foreign investment, which is why the Chinese have become the ‘lenders of first resort’ to many African states via its Belt and Road Initiative.” (That initiative is China’s global infrastructure development strategy to invest in countries around the world.)
Hanna Notte, a senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, told Newsweek that Russia could still carry out many of its goals in Africa without Putin ever visiting. She noted the diplomatic success of Lavrov’s visit, as well as Moscow’s recent Russia-Africa conference.
“In short, Russia is really stepping up its game in Africa to secure a foothold, and this effort does not stand or fall with Putin’s ability to visit the continent,” she said.
If he were to travel outside of Russia, Putin would have some key assurances that many world leaders don’t have, according to David Silbey, an associate professor of history at Cornell and director of teaching and learning at Cornell in Washington.
“Putin’s the head of a nuclear-armed power and travels with substantial security,” Silbey told Newsweek . “Arresting him in a foreign country would potentially be an act of war, and I’m not sure that any country would be willing to risk that, outside—maybe—of the United States.
Even so, Silbey called the ICC’s warrant “one more turn of the screw on Putin.”
Putin may still not take the risk of going abroad, at least not for the time being. Russian independent news outlet Meduza reported on March 21 that he had planned on traveling to Latin American and African countries in the lead-up to his 2024 presidential election campaign. Meduza’s sources said the Kremlin canceled those plans in light of the ICC warrant.
Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told Newsweek that Putin will likely be safely reelected without taking a trip to Africa or Latin America.
Katz said that “while Putin is definitely appreciative about how many African and Latin American governments have refused to side with the West on Ukraine, it’s not as if these governments are willing and able to meaningfully help Moscow in its war on Ukraine sufficiently to make it worth Putin’s while to visit them.”
Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek that while it’s still too early to tell, he doesn’t believe the ICC arrest warrant will immediately affect Russia’s efforts to expand its influence in Africa
“Much of this influence has been gained via irregular means—propping up unpopular autocratic regimes, disinformation, deployment of Wagner Group forces, election interference and opaque arms-for-resources deals,” Siegle said. “The African regimes that have welcomed this sort of irregular Russian support are likely to continue to do so, despite the arrest warrant.”
A big test for how Russia’s relations with Africa were affected by the ICC’s action will be to see which African leaders attend the Russia-Africa summit, which is set to take place in St. Petersburg in July, according to Siegle.
“This was going to be a big public relations opportunity for Russia to show that it is not a pariah and still maintains many partners who are unbothered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Siegle said. “Now that Putin has an arrest warrant out on him, the political and reputational costs for African leaders who make the trip to St. Petersburg for an audience with Putin will be much higher.”
For now, though, Russia will likely continue working “to deepen its ties to Africa” in a “quest to avoid isolation,” Siegle said.