Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to the occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in a show of defiance after the international criminal court issued an arrest warrant for him on war crimes charges.
Russian state media released footage on Sunday showing the president on what is believed to have been his first trip to Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine’s Donbas region since he launched a full-scale invasion last year.
The Tass news agency reported that Putin flew by helicopter to Mariupol on Saturday and took a tour of the city, at times driving his own car. He visited several sites and spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on reconstruction work in the city.
Mariupol fell in May last year after one of the war’s bloodiest battles. It marked Russia’s first major victory in its war in Ukraine, after it failed to seize the capital, Kyiv, and focused instead on south-eastern targets.
The port city was captured after a long siege in which Russian forces destroyed the Azovstal steelworks, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation and Europe said Russia’s early bombing of a Mariupol maternity hospital was a war crime.
On Saturday Putin had travelled to Crimea, a short distance south-west of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. Russian state TV showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Putin visited an art school and a children’s centre there – locations that appear to have been chosen in response to the ICC’s arrest warrant, which came about after a panel of judges agreed that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, bore responsibility for the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children.
Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022, many of them placed in institutions and foster homes.
The ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
Putin has not commented publicly on the warrant, which deepened his international isolation even though it is unlikely he will face trial any time soon. The Kremlin dismissed its validity as “void” since Russia did not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction.
Speaking to the state RIA agency on Sunday, the Russian deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin claimed that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year. “People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Khusnullin told RIA.
When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained, out of a prewar population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
Mariupol’s exiled city council condemned Putin’s visit, writing on its Telegram account: “The international criminal Putin visited occupied Mariupol. He watched the ‘rebuilding of the city’ … at night. Probably in order not to see the city, killed by his ‘liberation’, in the light of day.”
While Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has made a number of trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin while running what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
His trip also came before a planned visit to Moscow by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, this week, expected to provide a diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the west.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved on last September to officially claim four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, after referendums that Kyiv and the west described as a sham.