Putin visits occupied Mariupol, claiming invaded Ukrainian lands

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Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit Saturday night to occupied Mariupol, the eastern Ukrainian city that Russia captured in May, largely destroying it during a brutal months-long siege.

The visit was a symbolic display of courage for Putin, just a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him for alleged war crimes and just before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia, which begins on Monday. It was Putin’s first known trip to occupied Ukrainian territory since the start of his invasion in February last year, in which the West estimates that some 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded.

Citing security concerns, the Kremlin announced the visit only after Putin left on Sunday morning.

He was taken to Mariupol by helicopter. The city, located on the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov, is about 60 miles south of active fighting. It is part of Donetsk Oblast, one of four Ukrainian provinces, along with Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, that Russia claims it annexed in violation of international law.

A video released by the Kremlin showed Putin driving through several districts to inspect “the coastline, the theater building and monuments” and reconstruction work in the city, which was heavily damaged by airstrikes, the government said in a statement on Sunday.

Other videos released by Russian state media early Sunday showed Putin sitting in an empty hall of the rebuilt philharmonic hall, as well as talking to a small group of residents in the dark of night outside a newly built residential complex in the Nevsky district, which is widely used. by Russian propagandists to praise Moscow’s rapid reconstruction of the city.

“This is a little island of paradise here,” a woman says in the video before Putin gives a tour of the building’s apartment.

In comments on Mariupol message boards on the popular messaging app Telegram, some local residents complained that no one had shown Putin “the empty pits that are the foundations of destroyed houses.”

Pyotr Andryushchenko, adviser to the deposed Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, wrote in Telegram that “Putin or one of his couples” visited Mariupol during the night. Andryushchenko called Putin a “scarecrow,” saying he may have visited at night to hide the extent of the destruction inflicted on the city by Russian forces. At night, he wrote that “the real beauty of Russian occupation design is hidden in the darkness.”

Other Ukrainian officials have also suggested, without providing evidence, that Putin did not actually visit but sent a corpse.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes in Ukraine

The Russian president’s visit was part of a two-day tour of the occupied territories.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin visited Crimea, which the Russians invaded and illegally annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin also reported that Putin visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don for a meeting with top commanders at the regional headquarters of the Ministry of Defense.

Putin’s visit appeared designed to show muscle in Russia’s ambitions to invade Ukrainian territory and show tangible gains in a war that has largely stalled since a series of Russian military defeats last fall. In addition to the nearly 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, Ukrainian military casualties are estimated at 120,000, and more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations.

The visit to Mariupol also showed Putin’s image as defiant and unyielding after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest, saying he was personally responsible for the Russian leader’s criminal abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children.

At least 1,000 such children were taken from Mariupol to Russia, according to children’s rights activist Maria Lvova-Belova. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova on Friday, accusing her of the same crimes as Putin.

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To strengthen Russian control over the occupied territories, Moscow has pushed to bring the local population into its legal orbit by issuing Russian passports and making it easier to register for modest state benefits. Russia sought to present the annexation of the four regions as a fait accompli, and the Russian constitution was even rewritten to include them.

After Putin’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to portray the president as focused on easing the transition for residents.

“During the conversation with the president, the residents of Mariupol raised questions related to salary delays, obtaining Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov told the state-controlled Tass news agency. “The president will give instructions to settle the situation.”

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks, including the bombing of a theater used as a shelter by hundreds of people.

It is also one of the few occupied regional centers that Moscow still firmly controls after a Ukrainian counteroffensive last fall forced its troops to retreat from much of Kharkiv’s northeastern region and the southern city of Kherson.

The front line barely moved during the winter months, with both sides locked in a war of attrition that cost many lives and depleted ammunition supplies.

Ukrainian forces, emboldened by fresh arms supplies from its Western allies, are believed to be preparing for an offensive in the spring, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to return all Russian-occupied territories, including Crimea.

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Putin has shown no sign that he is willing to negotiate with Kiev and has instead tried to moderate the war in recent public appearances, apparently seeking to prepare the Russians for a long fight.

Since the invasion, the West has largely avoided Moscow, imposing export controls and a wide range of economic sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s military machine.

But Xi’s arrival on Monday is set to provide the strongest show of support for Beijing since the war began. China, which claims to be neutral in the conflict and has tried to present itself as a potential mediator.

For Putin, Xi’s visit reinforces the Kremlin’s core narrative that active support for Ukraine is limited to Western capitals, while Russia actively cooperates elsewhere.

Siobhan O’Grady, David L. Stern and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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