Contributor/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg on July 27.
CNN  — 

Once upon a time, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the man to see: In the weeks preceding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, world leaders took turns shuttling to Moscow to urge the Kremlin leader to step back from the brink and call off any plans for an attack.

Those efforts failed. But the man who set a catastrophic war in motion now finds his travel options extremely limited.

That may seem a trifling matter for a man who rules a country that spans eleven time zones. After all, Putin has an open door to Beijing, and Kremlin-friendly leaders in Central Asia and Iran have rolled out the welcome mat since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

And of course, he’ll always have Minsk: Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who provided Russia a launching pad for the invasion, has also played host to Putin.

But Putin will be notably absent from a key global forum this week, the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. His no-show speaks volumes about Russia’s isolation – and Putin’s shrinking horizons.

The leaders of the other members of the BRICS economic bloc – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, China’s leader Xi Jinping, Brazil’s President Luiz Lula da Silva and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – are all expected to be there.

But last month, Ramaphosa’s office said Putin would not attend “by mutual agreement.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is standing in for him, although Russian state media have said that Putin will appear via video link.

Does it really matter if Putin phones this one in? Taking part in an international talking shop may be a convenient way to act like a player on the global stage, but Putin is missing more than another group photo.

Putin is a staunch proponent of what he calls a “multipolar world order,” promoting structures such as the BRICS as a counterweight to US- and Western-led institutions that have harshly condemned Russia for its war on Ukraine.

And while Russia’s actions may have brought broad condemnation from the West, it remains locked in a campaign for international influence and support, particularly across the global south.

Bolstering such support against the background of the war on Ukraine was a key aim of Putin’s recent Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. The turnout by African leaders may have disappointed the Kremlin – less than half of the heads of state who attended a similar 2019 conference showed up for last month’s event – but Russian foreign policy is still banking on diplomatic and political support from countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia.

So why would Putin miss out on another opportunity to promote his vision? Well, for starters, there’s the not-insignificant issue of a warrant from the International Criminal Court.

In March, the ICC issued a warrant for Putin and another Russian official for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. The ICC warrant put South Africa in a bind: As a signatory to the treaty governing the Hague court, South Africa is obliged to arrest individuals indicted by the ICC.

It’s magical thinking to assume that Putin might have been arrested on the tarmac in Johannesburg. After all, then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – who was and remains under indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity linked to the genocide in Darfur – managed to dodge such a fate during a 2015 visit to South Africa, exiting the country while a court considered a request from the ICC to arrest him.

The Kremlin, of course, bristles at any implication that Putin is ducking out of the BRICS summit because of an ICC warrant.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied claims made by Ramaphosa in a confidential affidavit that Russia would view the arrest of Putin as a “declaration of war.”

And Putin himself told journalists on July 29 that he didn’t think his presence at BRICS was “more important than my presence in Russia now,” according to state news agency TASS.

Regardless of motive, the optics of a no-show by Putin at the summit are not good for Moscow. But Russia is pressing ahead with a PR campaign that casts Russia as a staunchly anti-colonial power that supports a more just and equitable world order.

In a newly published interview, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov laid out the main talking points.

“I certainly agree that the concept of Western domination promoted by the United States and its subordinate countries does not provide for the harmonious development of all of humanity,” he said.

“On the contrary, we must deal (with) the Western minority’s never-ending striving for military, political, financial and economic expansion. Their slogans change: they promote globalization, then Westernization, Americanization, universalization, liberalization, etc. But the essence remains the same – they strive to subordinate every independent player and force them to play by the rules that are beneficial to the West.”

The US and its allies, Lavrov continued, “are trying to slow down the natural evolution of international relations and the formation of a multipolar system, or even reverse the process. They are not averse to using inappropriate and illegal methods, including the use of force or unilateral sanctions (not approved by the UN Security Council), information and psychological warfare, etc, in order to bend the world to suit their needs.”

The irony here is pretty rich. Russia, after all, is waging a war on Ukraine that Putin has justified in starkly imperial terms.

And the end of the unipolar world, in Putin’s view, seems to mean that Russia can go about the bloody business of occupying Ukraine unfettered by international norms, under the false banner of liberation.