Putin visits occupied Mariupol, claiming invaded Ukrainian lands
But even as Putin personally asserted his claim to occupied Ukrainian territory, international condemnation against him intensified.
German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann told the Bild newspaper that German authorities would arrest Putin, in accordance with the warrant, if he sets foot in their country. President Biden also backed the court’s decision on Saturday, saying “it’s justified.”
Russian officials, who like the United States do not recognize the jurisdiction of the international court, called the arrest warrant illegal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it “scandalous and unacceptable” but also “null and void” from a legal point of view.
The visit to Mariupol was Putin’s first known trip to occupied Ukrainian territory since his invasion began in February last year. Since then, the West estimates that some 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured in Ukraine.
Highlighting security concerns, the Kremlin only announced the visit on Sunday morning after Putin left. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry accused Putin of surrendering at night “like a thief”.
The Russian president was transported to Mariupol by helicopter. The town, on the Sea of Azov, is about 60 miles south of active fighting. It is part of the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces, along with Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which Russia claims to have annexed, in violation of international law.
Video released by the Kremlin showed Putin driving a vehicle through several neighborhoods to inspect “the coastline, the theater building and memorable places” and reconstruction work in the city, which was badly damaged by airstrikes, according to a government statement issued on Sunday.
Other videos released to Russian state media early on Sunday showed Putin sitting in an empty hall of a rebuilt philharmonic, as well as talking to a small group of residents in the dark of night outside a newly built residential complex in the Nevsky district, a project widely used by Russian propagandists to praise Moscow’s rapid reconstruction of the city.
“It’s a little island paradise here,” a woman said in the video before Putin toured an apartment in the building.
In comments on Mariupol’s message boards on popular messaging app Telegram, some residents complained that no one had shown Putin “the empty pits that are the foundations of destroyed houses”.
On a private Telegram channel, a woman asked why Putin hadn’t visited “neighborhoods where people are still without heat, with broken windows, intermittent water and electricity?”
She also asked why she hadn’t been shown the Stary Krym cemetery, where thousands of new graves are simply marked with numbers instead of names.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, linked the visit to the war crimes arrest warrant. “The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” Podolyak tweeted. “The murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and tombs. Cynicism and lack of remorse.”
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The Russian president’s trip was part of a two-day tour through the occupied territories.
Earlier on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s absorption of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin also said Putin had traveled to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don for a meeting with top military commanders at the regional headquarters of the Defense Ministry.
Putin’s trip appeared designed to put on a heavy display of Russia’s claims to invaded Ukrainian territory and to showcase tangible gains in a war that has largely stalled after a series of Russian military defeats in the fall. In addition to some 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, Ukrainian military casualties are estimated at 120,000 and, according to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed.
The visit to Mariupol also projected an image of Putin as defiant and inflexible after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him, saying he was personally responsible for the criminal kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children taken away across the Russian border.
At least 1,000 of these children have been transferred to Russia from Mariupol, according to Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova on Friday, charging him with the same crimes as Putin.
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To consolidate Russian control over the occupied territories, Moscow pushed to bring the population back into its legal orbit by issuing Russian passports and making it easier to register for modest government benefits. Russia sought to present the annexation of the four regions as a fait accompli, and the Russian constitution was even rewritten to incorporate them.
After Putin’s visit, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, tried to portray the president as focused on easing the transition for residents.
“During a conversation with the president, residents of Mariupol raised questions about the delay in paying salaries, obtaining Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov told the agency. state-controlled press Tass. “The president will give instructions to deal with the situation.”
Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks, including the bombing of a drama theatre, which had served as shelter for hundreds of people.
It is also one of the few occupied regional centers that Moscow still firmly controls, after its troops were forced to withdraw from most of the northeastern Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson to the south during the Ukrainian counter-offensives in the fall.
The front line barely moved during the winter months, with both sides engaged in a war of attrition that cost many lives and depleted ammunition stocks.
Ukrainian forces, emboldened by new arms supplies from its Western allies, are preparing for a spring offensive, with Zelensky promising to reclaim all Russian-occupied areas, including Crimea.
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Putin has shown no signs that he is willing to negotiate with kyiv and has instead sought to normalize the war in recent public speeches, apparently seeking to prepare the Russians for a long fight.
Following the invasion, the West largely shunned Moscow, imposing export controls and a wide range of economic sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s war machine.
But on Monday, Xi’s arrival is expected to provide Beijing’s strongest show of support since the war began. China insists it is neutral in the dispute and has sought to portray itself as a potential mediator.
For Putin, Xi’s visit reinforces the Kremlin’s fundamental talking point that active support for Ukraine is limited to Western capitals, while Russia is actively cultivating alliances elsewhere.
“Russian-Chinese relations have reached the highest level in history and are gaining even more strength,” Putin wrote in an article discussing Xi’s visit. The Kremlin published the text on its website on Sunday evening.
“We appreciate the well-balanced stance on events in Ukraine taken by the PRC,” Putin wrote, using the acronym People’s Republic of China. “We welcome China’s willingness to make a significant contribution to resolving the crisis.”
Siobhán O’Grady, David L. Stern, Serhiy Morgunov and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.