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Putin visits occupied Mariupol, claiming invaded Ukrainian lands


Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit on Saturday evening to occupied Mariupol, the eastern Ukrainian city that Russia seized in May after largely destroying it in a brutal siege of several months.

The visit was a symbolic display of bravado by Putin, just a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him for alleged war crimes and ahead of a state visit to Russia by the President. Chinese Xi Jinping, which begins on Monday. It was Putin’s first known trip to occupied Ukrainian territory since he began his invasion in February last year, in which the West estimates around 200,000 Russian troops were killed or injured.

Highlighting security concerns, the Kremlin only announced the visit on Sunday morning after Putin left.

He was transported to Mariupol by helicopter. The town, on the Sea of ​​Azov, is about 60 miles south of active fighting. It is part of the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces, along with Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which Russia claims to have annexed, in violation of international law.

Video released by the Kremlin showed Putin driving a vehicle through several neighborhoods to inspect “the coastline, the theater building and memorable places” and reconstruction work in the city, which was badly damaged by airstrikes, according to a government statement issued on Sunday.

Other videos released by Russian state media early Sunday morning showed Putin sitting in an empty hall of a rebuilt philharmonic, as well as talking to a small group of residents in the dark of night outside a newly built residential complex in the Nevsky district, a project widely used by Russian propagandists to praise Moscow’s rapid reconstruction of the city.

“It’s a little island paradise here,” a woman said in the video before Putin toured an apartment in the building.

In comments on Mariupol’s message boards on popular messaging app Telegram, some local residents complained that no one had shown Putin “the empty pits that are the foundations of destroyed houses”.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the ousted Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram that “Putin or one of his look-alikes” had visited Mariupol overnight. Andryushchenko called Putin a “scarecrow”, saying he probably went at night to hide the extent of the destruction Russian forces had carried out in the city. At night, he writes, “the real beauty of Russian occupation design is hidden by darkness”.

Other Ukrainian officials have also suggested, without providing evidence, that Putin did not actually visit but sent a look-alike.

ICC issues arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes in Ukraine

The Russian president’s trip was part of a two-day tour through the occupied territories.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s absorption of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin also said Putin had traveled to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don for a meeting with top military commanders at the regional headquarters of the Defense Ministry.

Putin’s trip appeared designed to put on a heavy display of Russia’s claims to invaded Ukrainian territory and to showcase tangible gains in a war that has largely stalled after a string of Russian military defeats last fall. In addition to some 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, Ukrainian military casualties are estimated at 120,000 and, according to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed.

The visit to Mariupol also projected an image of Putin as defiant and inflexible after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him, saying he was personally responsible for the criminal kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children taken through the Russian leader.

At least 1,000 of these children have been transferred to Russia from Mariupol, according to Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova on Friday, charging him with the same crimes as Putin.

War forces thousands of disabled Ukrainians into institutions

To consolidate Russian control over the occupied territories, Moscow lobbied to bring the local population into its legal orbit by issuing Russian passports and facilitating registration for modest government benefits. Russia sought to present the annexation of the four regions as a fait accompli, and the Russian constitution was even rewritten to incorporate them.

After Putin’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to portray the president as focused on easing the transition for residents.

“During a conversation with the president, residents of Mariupol raised questions about the delay in paying salaries, obtaining Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov told the agency. state-controlled press Tass. “The president will give instructions to deal with the situation.”

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks, including the bombing of a drama theatre, which had served as shelter for hundreds of people.

It is also one of the few occupied regional centers that Moscow still firmly controls after its troops were forced to withdraw from most of the northeastern Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson to the south during Ukrainian counter-offensives last fall.

The front line barely moved during the winter months, with both sides engaged in a war of attrition that cost many lives and depleted ammunition stocks.

Ukrainian forces, emboldened by new arms supplies from its Western allies, are preparing for a spring offensive, with President Volodymyr Zelensky promising to reclaim all Russian-occupied areas, including Crimea.

Ukraine runs out of trained troops and ammunition as casualties mount, pessimism grows

Putin has shown no signs that he is willing to negotiate with kyiv and has instead sought to normalize the war in recent public speeches, apparently seeking to prepare the Russians for a long fight.

Following the invasion, the West largely shunned Moscow, imposing export controls and a wide range of economic sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s war machine.

But on Monday, Xi’s arrival is expected to provide Beijing’s strongest show of support since the war began. China, which insists it is neutral in the conflict and has sought to present itself as a potential mediator.

For Putin, Xi’s visit reinforces the Kremlin’s fundamental talking point that active support for Ukraine is limited to Western capitals while Russia actively cultivates alliances elsewhere.

Siobhán O’Grady, David L. Stern and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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