Putin makes a surprise visit to Mariupol, occupied Ukraine

Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol, the Ukrainian city destroyed by its occupying army last year, in apparent defiance after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant accusing the Russian president of war crimes.

State television showed Putin arriving in the port city by helicopter in the early hours of Sunday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that the entire trip to Mariupol was planned “spontaneously” and that Putin toured the frontline city without a full motorcycle entourage, state news agency RIA Novosti reports.

It was the president’s first trip to the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, including four provinces that Moscow wants to annex, since the full-scale invasion of the country began last year.

Putin has largely avoided visiting the front lines, mostly staying in Moscow, where access to even his top officials is highly restricted and holding meetings online.

After his visit to Mariupol, Putin made a rare public appearance in southern Russia’s Rostov-on-Don, where he listened to a report by Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, the commander-in-chief of the campaign in Ukraine.

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The trip to Mariupol, which is part of four provinces claimed by Russia, although it does not control all of it, came a day after Putin visited Crimea, the peninsula he annexed from Ukraine in 2014, for the first time.

The unannounced trip underscores Putin’s determination to continue the faltering invasion despite Russia’s massive losses, economic isolation and an ICC order charging him with “individual criminal responsibility” for the forced removal of children from occupied territories in Ukraine.

Kiev says more than 16,000 children have been abducted during the war, including more than 1,000 from Mariupol, which Russian forces virtually razed to the ground after a brutal three-month siege.

Putin, who has not commented on the allegations, and Children’s Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova could be arrested if they travel to a country that is part of the ICC.

State television footage showed Putin driving a black Jeep through the streets of Mariupol in the company of Marat Khusnullin, a senior Russian official, who presented him with Russia’s efforts to rebuild the city.

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It was taken to the concert hall of the Mariupol Philharmonic, where Russia had originally planned to hold show trials last year accusing Ukrainian prisoners of war crimes before abandoning the idea.

He was also shown speaking on state TV with people who said local residents told the president they had “prayed for him” and thanked Russia for rebuilding their apartments after their homes were destroyed.

Ukrainian officials say at least 22,000 of Mariupol’s pre-war civilian population of half a million died in the siege, and estimates put the total number of casualties at several times higher.

But on Sunday, Khusnullin said residents were flocking back to Mariupol thanks to Russian reconstruction efforts. “People started coming back. When they saw that the reconstruction was underway, people began to actively return,” he said.

He vowed to complete the reconstruction of the heavily damaged city center by the end of the year. He claimed that the destruction in Mariupol was caused by retreating Ukrainian forces.

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Standing next to him, Putin added: “They are Nazis. Decent people don’t do that.”

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/77bb83a2-910f-444d-95cc-0f1f7131a2eb