Delegation from Ukraine in South Africa for talks
Ukrainian civil society leaders, Oleksandra Romantsova and Olexiy Haran, give a lecture at South Africa's Wits university in Johannesburg, South Africa April 21, 2023. Reuters

Ukrainian activist Oleksandra Romantsova this week suggested to South African officials that it would be better for Russian President Vladimir Putin to dial in to this year's BRICS summit in South Africa rather than attend in person.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin last month, and South Africa as an ICC member would be required to detain Putin if he attends the 15th BRICS Summit that South Africa will host in August.

The BRICS group comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a bloc seen as a powerful emerging-market alternative to the West.

"If Putin comes here ... they (South Africa) need to arrest him. It's a complicated political situation. So better that Putin join via Zoom," Romantsova told Reuters in an interview at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she was participating in a seminar.

Romantsova, executive director of Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties which jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, formed part of a Ukrainian civil society delegation that aimed to share as much information as possible about the war still raging more than a year after Russia invaded.

Zane Dangor, director-general of South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said officials in his department met with the Ukrainian delegation but declined to go into detail.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a special military operation.

The ICC issued the warrant for Putin alleging Moscow's forcible deportation of Ukrainian children was a war crime. The Kremlin has reacted with outrage, saying any decisions of the court are "null and void."

Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations its forces have committed atrocities during the invasion.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said this week that his government was still deliberating what to do about the warrant for Putin. Three officials with knowledge of those deliberations have told Reuters that Putin attending the BRICS summit virtually was an option that was being considered.

South Africa is one of Russia's most important allies on a continent divided over the Ukraine war and Western attempts to isolate Moscow because of it.

South Africa held a joint naval exercise with Russia and China in February, a month after a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Ramaphosa talked about South Africa acting as a mediator in the conflict last year but it never gained much traction.

Romantsova said if South Africa wanted to mediate then it needed to have a strong connection with Ukraine, not just Russia. "You need to understand the situation in Ukraine, you have to need have a regular connection," she said.