Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday night 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 showing the president on 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 said 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, spoke to 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 in Europe (OSCE) 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.
When Moscow fully captured Mariupol 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.
An adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the visit to the devastated city was tantamount to a perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime.
“The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
“As the civilized world announces the arrest of the ‘war director’ (VV Putin) in case of crossing its borders, the murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city & graves. Cynicism & lack of remorse.”
Mariupol’s exiled city council also 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 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.
From Mariupol, he went to Rostov in southern Russia, where state TV showed him meeting the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
On Monday China’s leader Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Putin in a trip that will reaffirm the leaders’ strong ties and provide Moscow with an opportunity to emphasise that it has not been isolated by the global community.
China last month proposed a 12-point peace plan for dealing with the war, though it did not address critical details such as whether Russian troops should withdraw.
Xi’s visit will be widely interpreted as a show of support for Putin, whom Xi has described as his “best friend”.
But he will also want to demonstrate to the world that he can be a restraining force on Putin, for example by preventing him from deploying nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Additional reporting by Pjotr Sauer and Amy Hawkins