The Kremlin says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the Russian-occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol after a stopover in the Crimean Peninsula to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s illegal annexation of the territory in 2014.
The Russian leader arrived late Saturday in Mariupol, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, with video footage showing Putin chatting with residents after earlier visiting an art school and a children’s center in Crimea.
The visits came after the International Criminal Court Friday issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest on war crimes charges for Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian children during the midst of its 13-month invasion. Putin has not commented on the charges and the Kremlin has called the allegations “legally null and void.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea and all areas it has occupied in the eastern regions of Ukraine, but the ground war in Ukraine’s eastern regions has to a large degree stalemated, with neither side gaining much territory.
Putin’s visit to war-torn Ukraine was his first since the February 2022 invasion. Numerous Western leaders supporting Ukraine, including U.S. President Joe Biden, have visited Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital that Putin tried — and failed — to capture in the earliest weeks of the war.
Mariupol was one of the centers of fighting in the first months of the war, although when Russia took full control last May, only about 100,000 residents remained of the city’s prewar population of 450,000.
Russian news reports said Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline. The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Putin chatting with residents outside what appeared to be a newly built residential complex— and being shown around one of the apartments.
Peskov said Putin, after leaving Mariupol, met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city about 180 kilometers farther east, and conferred with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the leader of Russian military operations in Ukraine.
On Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin told the RIA state news agency that Russia plans to stay in Mariupol, saying the government hopes to finish the reconstruction of its bombed-out downtown by the end of 2023.
“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is underway, people started actively returning,” Khusnullin told RIA.
Mariupol’s plight first drew the world’s attention with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital March 9, 2022, less than two weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people, and possibly hundreds more, were reported killed in the bombing of a theater that was serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter.
A small contingent of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering. But their defense of the steel plant was an early indication that Ukrainian forces would not willingly capitulate to the Russian invasion.
Putin’s visit to Ukraine came just ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow. He’s scheduled to arrive Monday for talks about the war and other global issues.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Sunday in its daily intelligence update on Russia’s invasion that the “quiet declaration of an alternative capital” for the Zaporizhzhia Oblast “is likely [a] tacit acknowledgement within the Russian system that its forces are highly unlikely to seize previously planned major objectives in the near future.”
Russian officials published a decree March 3 declaring Melitopol as the Zaporizhzhia oblast capital. It was designed as a temporary measure, the ministry said, until the city of Zaporizhzhia is controlled by Russia.
However, Russia has never occupied the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the current front line.
Putin claimed in September to have annexed four oblasts, including Zaporizhzhia, as part of the Russian Federation.