A day after the International Criminal Court was found guilty of war crimes, President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the scene of some of the worst devastation from its invasion a year ago.
State television showed expanded footage of Putin broadcast in the city on Saturday night, where he met relocated residents and briefed Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khosnullin on reconstruction efforts.
The port city of Mariupol became known around the world as synonymous with death and destruction, with much of it reduced to rubble in the early months of the war, finally falling to Russian forces in May.
Hundreds were killed in the bombing of a theater where families with children were sheltering. The Organization for Security and Co-operation and Europe (OSCE) declared Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital a war crime. Moscow denied this and has said since its February 24 invasion last year that it does not target civilians.
Putin’s visit was a defiant gesture after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on Friday, charging him with the war crime of deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
He has not commented publicly on the decision, but his spokesperson said it was legally “null and void” and that Russia had found the cases raised by the ICC to be “scandalous and unacceptable”.
Mariupol’s visit was Putin’s first to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region since the start of the war, and those closest to the front lines.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made several trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk about his strategy, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin as he leads what Russia calls his “own military operation” in Ukraine.
Kiev and its allies say the invasion is an imperial land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Ukraine.
Putin’s trip to Mariupol took place in the dark. The television d’État l’a montré dans une voiture, traversant the ville en compagnie du vice-premier ministre, Khosnulin, informé in detail de la reconstruction de logements, de ponts, d’hopitaux, de voies de transport et d’une Concert hall.
State media said he visited a new residential area built by the Russian army when the first immigrants moved there last September.
“Do you live here? Do you like it?” Putin was seen asking the locals.
“A lot,” one woman replied, clasping her hands and thanking Putin for the “victory.” It’s our little piece of heaven here right now.
Khosnulin told Putin that the population had returned “energetically”. Mariupol had a pre-war population of half a million and was home to the Azovstal steelworks, one of the largest in Europe, where Ukrainian fighters held out for weeks in tunnels and underground bunkers before being forced to surrender.
“The city center has been hit hard,” Khosnulin said. “We want to finish [reconstruction] From the center by the end of the year, at least the facade part. The center is very beautiful. »
There was no immediate reaction from the Ukrainian government to the visit.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four regions of Ukraine largely occupied by Russia that Putin proposed in September to annex to an extent that was rejected by most countries in the United Nations General Assembly as illegal.
Putin flew there by helicopter after visiting Crimea on the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine.
He traveled from Mariupol to Rostov in southern Russia, where on Sunday state television showed him meeting with Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
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