Putin visits occupied Mariupol days after international arrest warrant issued

The Russian President drove around the Ukrainian city, making stops and talking to residents

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visit the Mariupol drama theatre. AP
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Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, days after the Russian leader was served an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.

Mr Putin arrived by helicopter late on Saturday and visited several districts of the city, which was largely laid to waste by Russia last year, and has been occupied by Moscow's forces since May.

He drove himself around the city’s memorial sites, concert hall and coastline, Russian news agencies said, without specifying when the visit took place.

Mr Putin also met residents in the city’s Nevskyi district, according to the reports.

The visit triggered an angry reaction from Ukraine, with a presidential aide blasting its "cynicism" and "lack of remorse".

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Sunday that Mr Putin's visit to the occupied territory is a bid to "shore up" domestic support for the war amid what he called a "terrible showing" from Moscow's "underperforming military".

"It's certainly an indication, I think, that he knows he's not doing so well militarily there," Mr Kirby told MSNBC.

"And to try to make at least a visible case to the world that he's in control … so I think it's a lot of propaganda."

The visit comes before a trip to Moscow this week by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Beijing, a strategic ally of Moscow, has touted it as a "visit for peace" as it seeks to play mediator in the Ukraine conflict.

China has sought to position itself as a neutral party, urging Moscow and Kyiv to open negotiations.

But western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for not condemning Russia's offensive.

Mr Putin's Mariupol trip, which took place "very late" on Saturday and in the early hours of Sunday, was "spontaneous", according to the Kremlin.

"It was all very spontaneous," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

"Movements around the city were not planned either," nor was his meeting with local residents, he said.

Speaking to the state RIA agency on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said Russia was in Mariupol to stay.

He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its downtown area 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with residents at their new flat during his visit to Mariupol. AP

It was Mr Putin's first visit to one of four Ukrainian regions Russia claimed in September to have annexed as part of its invasion in February 2022.

He arrived in Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula's annexation and took place almost a year to the day after a strike on a drama theatre there allegedly killed hundreds of civilians sheltering from air attack.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation and Europe said Russia's alleged bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol was also a war crime.

The capture of Mariupol in May was Russia's first major victory after it failed to seize Kyiv and focused instead on south-eastern Ukraine.

An estimated 100,000 people remained at the time out of a prewar population of 450,000.

Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.

Ukraine estimates about 20,000 civilians were killed in the city, including those in the theatre bombing.

Black Sea deal

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Moscow and Kyiv had agreed to extend a deal that allows Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blocked by Russian warships.

The agreement was renewed for at least 60 days - half the intended period - after Russia warned any further extension beyond mid-May would depend on the removal of some Western sanctions.

The deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July had already been extended for 120 days in November.

Arrest Warrant

The ICC accused Mr Putin of war crimes in illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.

While Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a number of trips to the battlefields to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy, Mr Putin has largely remained in Russia.

In the Nevsky district of Mariupol, a new residential neighbourhood built by Russian military, Mr Putin visited a family in their home, Russian media reported.

“The head of state also examined the coastline of Mariupol in the area of the yacht club, the theatre building, memorable places of the city,” the Interfax agency said, quoting the Kremlin's press service.

Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of the four Russia moved in September to annex.

Kyiv and its western allies said the move was illegal.

Donetsk, together with the Luhansk region, comprise most of the Donbas industrialised part of Ukraine where the biggest battle in Europe for generations has been fought.

Updated: March 20, 2023, 5:33 AM