Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September and a show of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges.
Mr Putin arrived in Mariupol late on Saturday after visiting Crimea, south-west of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday.
He was shown chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and a children’s centre in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Mariupol became a worldwide symbol of resistance after outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May. Much of the city was pounded to rubble by Russian shelling.
Mr Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of him facing trial anytime soon. The Kremlin, which does not recognise the authority of the ICC, has rejected its move as “legally null and void”.
The surprise trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Mr Putin in his confrontation with the West.
In an essay published in the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, Mr Putin said: “We are grateful for the balanced line (of China) in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, for understanding their background and true causes. We welcome China’s willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”
China in February released a position paper calling for an end to fighting in Ukraine and for upholding all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. It did not address how to resolve Russia’s illegal claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Fox News Sunday that any call for a cease-fire in Ukraine coming out of the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable to the US because it would only “ratify Russian’s conquest to date”, and give Moscow “time to refit, retrain, re-man and try to plan for a renewed offensive”.
Mr Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites”, concert hall and coastline, Russian news reports said.
The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Mr Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.
Following his trip to Mariupol, Mr Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city about 112 miles farther east, and conferred with Gen Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian military operations in Ukraine.
Mr Peskov said the trip had been unannounced, and that Mr Putin intended to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its ordinary mode of operation”.
Speaking to the state RIA-Novosti agency, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year.
“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Mr Khusnullin told RIA.
Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, heaped scorn on Mr Putin’s trip to Mariupol.
“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” he said. “While the countries of the civilised world are announcing the arrest of the ‘war director’ in the event of crossing the border, the organiser of the murders of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and mass graves.”
When Moscow fully captured the city 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 of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
Mariupol’s plight first came into international focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 2022, less than two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began.
A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theatre being used as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by The Associated Press suggested the real death toll could be closer to 600.
A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defence tying down Russian forces and coming to symbolise Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved in September to officially claim four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, following referendums that Kyiv and the West described as a sham.
The ICC on Friday accused Mr Putin of bearing personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. UN investigators also said there was evidence for the forced transfer of “hundreds” of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to Ukrainian government figures, over 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled territories or Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.
While the ICC’s move was welcomed by Kyiv, the chances of Mr Putin facing trial are slim because Moscow does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
Ukrainian officials reported on Sunday that at least three civilians had been killed and 19 wounded by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours. The deaths were in the eastern Donetsk region, amid fierce battles for control of the city of Bakhmut, according to Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko on Ukrainian TV.
Kharkiv regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a Telegram update that a 51-year-old woman was “fighting for her life” after being hit by shrapnel as Russian troops fired on the border town of Dvorichna.
Top Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said Ukrainian troops were holding the line near Bakhmut, a key target of a long, grinding Russian offensive, adding that the enemy’s plan to occupy the city “are now foundering”.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces said Russian troops are “tactically unable to complete” Bakhmut’s capture.
“Yes, there are very active battles, (the Russians) continue to carry out several dozen attacks by inertia, but they suffer huge losses,” Serhii Cherevaty said on Ukrainian TV, adding that Ukrainian defences are “bleeding the enemy, breaking his fighting spirit”.
Taking Bakhmut would give the Kremlin a battlefield victory after months of setbacks, and could pave the way for Russia to threaten other Ukrainian strongholds in the region, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Russian forces shelled a house in Bilozerka, a suburb west of the southern city of Kherson, and a woman who was pulled from the rubble was taken to hospital, according to the Kherson regional military administration, writing on Telegram.