A day after being accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, scene of some of the worst devastation of his year-old invasion.
State television showed extended footage of Putin being shown around the city on Saturday (Mar 18) night, meeting rehoused residents and being briefed on reconstruction efforts by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin.
The port city of Mariupol became known around the world as a byword for death and destruction as much of it was reduced to ruins in the first months of the war, eventually falling to Russian forces in May.
Hundreds were killed in the bombing of a theatre where families with children were sheltering. The Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital there was a war crime. Moscow denied that and has said since it invaded on Feb 24 last year that it does not target civilians.
Putin’s visit had the air of a gesture of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on Friday, accusing him of the war crime of deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
He has not publicly commented on the move, but his spokesman said it was legally “null and void” and that Russia found the very questions raised by the ICC to be “outrageous and unacceptable”.
The visit to Mariupol was the first that Putin has made to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region since the war started, and the closest he has come to the front lines.
While Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a number of trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin while running what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Kyiv and its allies say the invasion is an imperialistic land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people in Ukraine.