Putin visited Mariupol as part of a surprise visit to occupied Ukraine

Putin visited Mariupol as part of a surprise visit to occupied Ukraine

By Lydia Kelly

(Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin made a surprise weekly visit to the war-torn port of Mariupol, state media said, the first visit by a Kremlin leader to the Russian-held region of Ukraine’s Donbas region since the conflict began.

The visit comes after Putin made an unannounced visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine, and just two days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader.

Putin has yet to comment publicly on the ICC warrant, but his visit to Russian-claimed Ukrainian territory was seen by some observers as defiance.

Mariupol fell in May after one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, marking Russia’s first major victory since Russia failed to capture Kiev and focused instead on southeastern Ukraine.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital there was a war crime.

Russian news agencies, citing the Kremlin, said Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter “on a working visit”. He toured different districts of the city, making stops and talking to residents.

It is the closest Putin has been to the front lines since the year-long war began.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin on Friday, charging him with war crimes for illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine, a highly symbolic move that further isolates the Russian leader.

While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made several visits to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and negotiate tactics, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin as Russia conducts “special military operations” in Ukraine.

Kiev and its allies say the invasion, now in its 13th month, is an imperialist land grab that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced millions.

‘Beautiful downtown’

In Mariupol’s Nevsky district, Putin visited a family at their home, Russian media reported. The new residential neighborhood was built by the Russian military and the first people moved in last September.

Residents are “actively” returning, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin, who accompanied Putin, was quoted as saying by Russian agencies.

Before the war, Mariupol had a population of half a million people and one of the largest steel factories in Europe.

“The downtown was badly damaged,” Khusnulin said. “We want to finish (renovating) the center by the end of the year, at least the front. The center is beautiful.”

Russian media broadcast video of the Russian leader driving a car at night through a built-up area, as well as what media said was the Philharmonic, restored in just three months.

There was no immediate response from Kiev about the visit.

Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four regions that Putin moved to annex in September. Kiev and its Western allies condemned the move as illegal. Donetsk, along with the Luhansk region, make up most of the industrialized Donbass part of Ukraine that has seen the biggest war in Europe for generations.

Russian media reported on Sunday that Putin also met with the top commanders of his military operations in Ukraine, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov who is in charge of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

(Reporting by Lydia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Lincoln Feist)

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