Any attempt to arrest Vladimir Putin when he visits South Africa would be a declaration of war against Russia, the country’s president says.
Cyril Ramaphosa made the warning with weeks to go before an international meeting happens in Johannesburg, to which the Russian president is invited.
But if Mr Putin leaves Russian soil, he will be subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant.
South Africa is an ICC signatory and should therefore help in his arrest.
Yet it has refused to honour that obligation in the past – allowing safe passage in 2015 to Sudan’s then-President Omar al-Bashir who was wanted for war crimes against his own people.
Mr Putin has been invited to South Africa in August, when the country hosts a summit for members of the Brics countries – an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This bloc of fast-growing economies is seen by some as an alternative to the G7 group of advanced economies.
South Africa’s biggest opposition party, Democratic Alliance, has gone to court to try to force the authorities to carry out an arrest on Mr Putin should he set foot in the country.
Court documents reveal that President Ramaphosa is firmly against any such move, stating that national security is at stake.
“South Africa has obvious problems with executing a request to arrest and surrender President Putin,” he said in an affidavit.
“Russia has made it clear that arresting its sitting president would be a declaration of war. It would be inconsistent with our constitution to risk engaging in war with Russia.”
President Ramaphosa added that South Africa is one of several African nations holding talks with Russia and Ukraine “with a view of ending the war altogether”, and that attempting to arrest Mr Putin would be counter-productive.
Last month saw a peace mission to the European nations, where African presidents hoped they could bring Ukraine and Russia to the table together but ultimately failed.
Correspondents say the reasons range depending on the nation – be it South Africa’s anti-apartheid ties to the Soviet Union, or Mali’s present-day reliance on Russian Wagner mercenaries to fight jihadists.
There are economic ties between Russia and African nations too, not least in South Africa.
A sanctioned Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, is said to be one of the biggest donors to South Africa’s governing party – the African National Congress (ANC).