Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the bombed-out Ukrainian city of Mariupol in his first visit to occupied eastern Ukraine since the start of Russia’s February invasion, the Kremlin reported Sunday. Putin's visit comes days after an international arrest warrant was issued for the Russian president.
The Russian leader flew to Mariupol by helicopter and took a tour of the city, driving by car, the Kremlin press service said on Sunday, quoted by Russian news agencies. It is his first trip to the Ukrainian port city.
The official reason for the trip was to take stock of the reconstruction of the city, which was left devastated by his own army's bombing after having besieged it for months, before it seized it in May 2022. Putin was presented with a report on the reconstruction work, the same source said.
This surprise visit to Mariupol is the Kremlin leader's first trip to the conquered Donbas since the start of the Russian offensive on 24 February 2022, for which Moscow is under severe international sanctions.
According to the Kremlin, before going to Mariupol, Putin also held a meeting in Rostov, Russia, with Russian army officials, including Chief of Staff Valeri Guerassimov.
Earlier on Saturday, he also visited occupied-Crimea for the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, for which it also faced international sanctions. It was his first visit to Crimea since 2021.
Vladimir Putin has been the target of an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) since Friday, which accuses him of “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children, which constitutes a war crime.
The court, which sits in The Hague, also sought to ascertain whether the bombing and siege of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine could constitute a crime against humanity. It concluded that it lacked evidence to reach such a conclusion, having had no access to the Donetsk region, where Mariupol is located.
The Kremlin has deemed “null and void” the arrest warrant of the ICC, whose jurisdiction Moscow does not recognise.
More than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the invasion on February 24, 2022, according to Kiev, and many have reportedly been placed in institutions and foster homes.
Arriving in Sevastopol, the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea, Putin attended the inauguration ceremony of an arts school for children on Saturday with local governor Mikhail Razvojaev, according to footage broadcast by state-run television channel Rossia-1.
As the town is only about 240km from Kherson, a southern Ukrainian city retaken by Kyiv in November after the withdrawal of Russian forces, Putin’s trip was also the first to a place so close to the front line.
“Our President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin knows how to surprise. In the good sense of the word,” Mr Razvojaev wrote on Telegram.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. At the wheel. Because on a historic day like today, he is always with Sevastopol and its people,” Mikhail Razvojaev said. “Our country has an incredible leader!” he enthused.
Russia annexed Crimea on March 18, 2014, following a sham referendum not recognised by Kyiv and the international community. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in January that he intended to take back Crimea – “our land” – by force of arms, Moscow keeps insisted that “Crimea is Russian” – making it a non-negotiable in any peace talks.
The international arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin was issued on the same day that Moscow and Beijing unveiled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia next week, meant to usher in a “new era” in relations between the two allies.
The visit will take place from March 20-22, just over a year after Russia launched an offensive in Ukraine that led the Kremlin to shift its focus to China, amid tensions with the West, which supports Ukraine.
Last month, China sought to establish itself as a mediator by issuing a document urging Moscow and Kiev to hold peace talks.