Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September, in a show of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges.
Putin arrived in Mariupol late Saturday after visiting Crimea, southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday. He was shown chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and a children’s center 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.
Former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on “Face the Nation” called Putin’s visit a “moment of clarity,” noting the warrant by the ICC.
“Look at just the brazen cynicism associated with him going to Sevastopol, which he illegally annexed in 2014, and then to Mariupol, going there at night,” McMaster said. “You know, visiting sites – the few sites – you know, that hadn’t been rumbled, you know, by the Russian military as they inflicted murder on innocent people in Mariupol.”
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 recognize 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 Putin in his confrontation with the West.
McMaster said “you’re going to see in the coming days and weeks is more and more evidence of Chinese support” toward Russia.
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 U.S. 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.”
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 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, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city some 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) farther east, and conferred with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian military operations in Ukraine, Peskov said.
Peskov said the trip had been unannounced, and that 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,” Khusnullin told RIA.
Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, heaped scorn on Putin’s trip to Mariupol.
“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” he said. “While the countries of the civilized world are announcing the arrest of the ‘war director’ in the event of crossing the border, the organizer 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 theater 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.