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Defiant Putin visits Mariupol on his first trip to occupied eastern Ukraine

Days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a defiant visit to the city of Mariupol on his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Putin flew to the port city by helicopter and “traveled to several areas of the city,” the Kremlin said in a statement on Sunday, adding that he met with several residents and entered the house of a family after inviting him.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said in a separate post on his Telegram channel that Putin “personally inspected one of the residential areas, the Philharmonic building and assessed the roads, driving a car around the city.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was escorted by his Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin during his visit to Mariupol in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region.Swimming pool photo via AP / Swimming pool photo via AP

Ukraine ceded Mariupol to Russia in May, after a months-long struggle that saw some of the most brutal Russian strikes of the conflict, including an attack on a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter and of maternity. Much of the strategic city is still in ruins after incessant bombing.

Failing to take the Ukrainian capital kyiv, it was Moscow’s first major victory after its invasion in February.

But by then he had become a global symbol of defiance after a small group of underarmed Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steelworks east of the city in the one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. Their fierce defense pinned down the Russian forces and delayed their eastward offensive.

An estimated 100,000 people remained in the city out of a pre-war population of 450,000 after its capture.

Khusnullin said on Sunday that he reported to Putin on “construction of new housing and infrastructure, improvement of territories, road construction and economic development.”

In a separate interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, he said “people began to actively return” to the city “when they saw that restoration was underway.”

NBC News was unable to verify this claim.

It was Putin’s second unannounced trip this weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. He also visited neighboring Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine.

While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a number of battlefield trips to boost soldiers’ morale, Putin remained mostly inside the Kremlin throughout the year-long conflict and his visit to Mariupol. has been the closest to Putin on the front lines since the invasion.

Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, a move most countries around the world have denounced as illegal. Following referendums that Kiev and the West called a sham in September, Moscow claimed four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, including Donetsk, where Mariupol is located.

The Kremlin statement said it also met with the top command of its military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov who is in charge of the war, at the Rostov-on command post. -Don in southern Russia.

While Putin has been largely uncomplaining, some of Moscow’s pro-war agitators have seen the non-appearance of top ministers on the battlefield as evidence that they are not strong enough on Ukraine.

His visits came a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, accusing him of committing the ‘war crime’ of overseeing the unlawful kidnapping and deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

He said there were reasonable grounds to believe that Putin bore individual responsibility for the crimes and that he failed to exercise proper control over the subordinates who committed the acts.

Moscow has consistently denied the war crimes allegations, describing them as a “fantasy” aimed at discrediting Russia. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov rejected the court’s findings. “We do not recognize this court, we do not recognize the jurisdiction of this court. This is how we deal with it,” he said in a Telegram post on Friday.

Defiant Putin visits Mariupol on his first trip to occupied eastern Ukraine

However, “Russia cannot portray this as a ‘foreign’ trip in defiance of the ICC,” according to Keir Giles, senior consultant on Russia and Eurasia at London-based think tank Chatham House.

“Crimea and Mariupol are in Ukraine, just temporarily occupied by Russian troops, but to admit that fact would go against Moscow’s entire narrative that they should be treated as Russian,” he said. declared.

“To admit that a day trip to Mariupol is a visit to a foreign country would also be to admit that Russia has illegally occupied its neighbor,” he added.

Elsewhere, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire oligarch who heads the Wagner Group’s private army, said on Saturday he planned to recruit 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.

“We have days when we recruit up to 1,200 people a day. On average, the number fluctuates between 500 and 800 [people] and there is currently a growth spurt,” Prighozin said in a statement on Russian social media site VK on Saturday.

The Wagner Group previously recruited convicts from Russian prisons, but said it stopped in January. According to Russian prison service figures released in November, the country’s prison population fell by more than 20,000 between August and November, the biggest drop in a decade.

nbcnews Gt

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