Putin Visits Occupied Mariupol, Staking Claim to Invaded Ukrainian Lands

Kremlin.ru/Handout via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to local residents as he visits Mariupol, Russian-controlled Ukraine, in this still image taken from handout video released on March 19, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit late Saturday to occupied Mariupol, the eastern Ukrainian city that Russia seized in May after mostly destroying it during a brutal months-long siege.

The visit was a symbolic display of bravado by Putin, just a day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest over alleged war crimes and right before a state visit to Russia by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which begins Monday.

But even as Putin personally staked his claim to occupied Ukrainian territory, international condemnation of him grew louder.

Germany’s justice minister, Marco Buschmann, told the Bild newspaper that German authorities would arrest Putin, in accordance with the warrant, if he set foot in their country. President Biden on Saturday also backed the court’s decision, saying “it’s justified.”

Officials in Russia, which, like the United States, does not recognize the international court’s jurisdiction, described the warrant as unlawful. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it “outrageous and unacceptable” but also “null and void” from a legal perspective.

The visit to Mariupol was Putin’s first known trip to occupied Ukrainian territory since the start of his invasion in February last year. Since then, the West estimates some 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine.

Highlighting the security concerns, the Kremlin announced the visit only on Sunday morning after Putin had left.

The Russian president was flown into Mariupol on a helicopter. The city, on the Azov Sea, sits about 60 miles south of active fighting. It is part of the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces, along with Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, that 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 readout posted Sunday.

Other videos carried on Russian state media early Sunday showed Putin sitting in an empty hall of a rebuilt philharmonic, as well as talking to a small group of residents in nighttime darkness outside a newly constructed residential complex in the Nevsky district, a project widely used by Russian propagandists to praise Moscow’s swift rebuilding of the city.

“This is a little island of paradise here,” one woman said in the video before Putin toured an apartment in the building.

In comments on Mariupol message boards on the popular Telegram messaging app, some residents complained that no one showed Putin “the empty pits that are the foundations of destroyed houses.”

On one private Telegram channel, a woman questioned why Putin did not visit “neighborhoods where people are still without heating, with broken windows, water and electricity intermittently?”

She also asked why he wasn’t shown the cemetery at Stary Krym, where thousands of new graves are marked simply with numbers instead of names.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, connected the visit and the arrest warrant for war crimes. “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 & graves. Cynicism & lack of remorse.”

The Russian president’s trip was part of a two-day tour across occupied territories.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin visited Crimea, which Russian invaded and illegally annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s absorption of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin also said Putin had visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don for a meeting with top military commanders at the regional Defense Ministry headquarters.

Putin’s trip seemed designed to make a muscular display of Russia’s claims to invaded Ukrainian territory and to showcase tangible gains in a war that has largely stalled after a string of Russian military defeats in the fall. In addition to the estimated 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, Ukrainian military casualties are estimated at up to 120,000, and according to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed.

The visit to Mariupol also projected an image of Putin as defiant and unbowed after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest, saying he was personally responsible for the criminal abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children taken across the Russian border.

At least 1,000 such children were relocated to Russia from Mariupol, according to Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights ombudswoman. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova on Friday, accusing her of the same crimes as Putin.

To solidify Russia’s control over the occupied territories, Moscow has pushed to bring the population into its legal orbit by issuing Russian passports and making it easy to sign up for modest government benefits. Russia has 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.

“In conversation with the president, residents of Mariupol raised questions related to the delay in paying salaries, obtaining Russian citizenship, and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov told the state-controlled news agency 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 theater, which had been used as a shelter by hundreds of people.

It is also one of the few occupied regional hubs Moscow still firmly controls, after its troops were forced to retreat from most of the northeastern Kharkiv region and from Kherson city in the south during Ukrainian counteroffensives in the fall.

The front line has barely moved in the winter months, with the two sides engaged in a war of attrition that has cost many lives and depleted ammunition supplies.

Ukrainian forces, emboldened by new weapons supplies from its Western allies, are believed to be gearing up for an offensive in the spring, with Zelensky promising to reclaim all Russian-occupied areas, including Crimea.

Putin has shown no sign that he is willing to negotiate with Kyiv and instead has sought to normalize the war in recent public speeches, apparently seeking to prepare Russians for a long fight.

Following the invasion, the West has largely shunned Moscow, imposing export controls and a vast array of economic sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s war machine.

But on Monday, the arrival of Xi is set to provide Beijing’s strongest show of support since the war started. China insists it is neutral in the conflict and has sought to portray itself as a potential mediator.

For Putin, Xi’s visit bolsters the Kremlin’s fundamental talking point that active support for Ukraine is limited to Western capitals, while Russia actively cultivates alliances elsewhere.

“Russia-China relations have reached the highest level in their history and are gaining even more strength,” Putin wrote in an article addressing Xi’s visit. The Kremlin posted the text to its website late Sunday. “We appreciate the well-balanced stance on the events in Ukraine adopted by the PRC,” Putin wrote, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “We welcome China’s readiness to make a meaningful contribution to the settlement of the crisis.”