Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to the occupied city of Mariupol, marking his first trip to Ukrainian territory since Moscow’s illegal annexation in September. This visit came as a show of defiance after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest on war crimes charges. Putin arrived in Mariupol late Saturday night after visiting Crimea. The Kremlin spokesman confirmed that Putin was shown chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and a children’s center in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Mariupol became a symbol of resistance after Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for over three months before it was taken over by Moscow in May, causing much of the city to be destroyed by Russian shelling. Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which has deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of him facing trial anytime soon. The Kremlin has rejected the move by the ICC as “legally null and void,” as it does not recognize its authority.
Putin’s surprise trip to Mariupol came just before a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West. Russian news reports said Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall, and coastline.
After his visit to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don. The Kremlin spokesman said the trip had been unannounced, and Putin intended to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its ordinary mode of operation.” Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay, as the government aimed to finish the reconstruction of its downtown by the end of the year. Khusnullin told RIA that people had already started returning, as they saw the reconstruction underway.
The ICC accused Putin of bearing personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine, and U.N. investigators found evidence of the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. While Ukraine welcomed the ICC’s move, Putin is unlikely to face trial since Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
Ukrainian officials reported at least three civilians killed and nineteen 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. 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.” 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.