Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Russian-Occupied Mariupol

Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Russian-Occupied Mariupol
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with local residents during his visit to Mariupol in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, in a still from video released on March 19, 2023. (Russian TV Pool via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to the port city of Mariupol, his first trip to the Russian-occupied territory.

Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four largely Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine that Putin in September moved to annex in an action rejected as illegal by most countries at the United Nations General Assembly.

Putin arrived in Mariupol late Saturday after visiting Crimea, southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday.

Russian media reported that Putin travelled by helicopter to Mariupol, where he met with local residents and was briefed on reconstruction efforts by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin. Russian news reports said Putin drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall, and coastline.

Russia Ukraine Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, escorted by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, visits the Mariupol theater during his visit to Mariupol in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, in a still from video released on March 19, 2023. (Russian TV Pool via AP)

While visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol in Crimea earlier Saturday, he was accompanied by the local governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev, and was taken to see a new children’s center and art school.

Following his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city some 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) farther east, and conferred with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Russian military operations in Ukraine, Peskov said.

Peskov said of the unannounced trip that Putin wanted to “inspect the work of the [command] post in its ordinary mode of operation.”

Last year, a small group of Ukrainian forces held back Russian troops for almost three months in a steel mill in Mariupol before finally surrendering to Russia in May.

Speaking with Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin reasserted Russia’s continued presence in Mariupol, adding that reconstruction of parts of the city that were destroyed during the conflict would hopefully be complete by the end of the year.

“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Khusnulin told RIA.

Mariupol had a population of around 450,000 prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the city was seized by Russia in May, only around 100,000 people remained, many without food, water, or basic necessities. The city experienced some of the heaviest bombardment, resulting in demolished buildings and structures throughout.

Putin’s surprise visit to Mariupol came less than 2 days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant on Friday for Putin’s arrest on charges of war crimes, though it’s unlikely he’ll be facing a trial any time soon.

Putin has not commented on the warrant. Moscow, which does not recognize the court’s authority, rejected the move as “legally null and void.”

The trip also comes ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week. Xi’s visit is expected to offer a diplomatic lifeline to Putin, in his endeavor to resist ongoing pressure from NATO and its allies.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told “Fox News Sunday” that any call for a cease-fire in Ukraine coming out of the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable to the United States because it would only “ratify Russian’s conquest to date” and give Moscow “time to refit, retrain, re-man and try to plan for a renewed offensive.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, heaped scorn on Putin’s trip to Mariupol.

“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” he said. “While the countries of the civilized world are announcing the arrest of the ‘war director’ in the event of crossing the border, the organizer of the murders of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and mass graves.”

Many Western governments denounced Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Last September, Moscow officially claimed four southern and eastern regions of Ukraine as Russian territories after referendums that were dismissed by the West.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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