Putin visited Mariupol as part of an unexpected tour of occupied Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the war-ravaged port of Mariupol over the weekend, according to state media. This is the first trip of the Kremlin leader to the territories of the Ukrainian Donbas occupied by Russia since the beginning of the conflict.
The visit comes after Putin made an unannounced visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine, and just two days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader.
Putin has not yet publicly commented on the ICC warrant, but his trips to Russian-claimed territory in Ukraine have been seen by some observers as an act of defiance.
Mariupol fell in May after one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, Russia’s first major victory since it failed to capture Kyiv and instead focused on southeastern Ukraine.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) has called Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital a war crime.
Putin flew by helicopter to Mariupol on a “working trip”, according to Russian news agencies, citing the Kremlin.
He traveled around several areas of the city, making stops and talking to residents.
This is the closest place to the front line where Putin has been since the beginning of the long-term war.
On Friday, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, charging him with the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine, a highly symbolic move that further isolates the Russian leader.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made several trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and discuss strategy, Putin has mostly stayed in the Kremlin, conducting what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Kyiv and its allies say the 13-month-long invasion is an imperialist land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Ukraine.
In the Nevsky district of Mariupol, Putin visited the family at their home, Russian media reported. The new residential area was built by the Russian military, the first people moved in last September.
Residents are “actively” returning, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who accompanied Putin, told Russian news agencies.
Before the war, half a million people lived in Mariupol, the Azovstal metallurgical plant, one of the largest in Europe, was located here.
“The city center is badly damaged,” Khusnullin said. “We want to complete (reconstruction) of the center by the end of the year, at least the front part. The center is very beautiful.”
Russian media aired videos of the Russian leader driving at night through a populated area and also entering what the media said was a philharmonic society, restored in just three months.
There was also no immediate reaction to the visit from Kyiv.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four regions that Putin transferred in September for annexation. Kyiv and its Western allies condemned the move as illegal.
Donetsk, together with Luhansk Oblast, make up the majority of Donbass, an industrialized part of Ukraine that has hosted the biggest battles in Europe for generations.
Russian media reported on Sunday that Putin also met with the commander-in-chief of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
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