Vladimir Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Occupied Mariupol

The highly classified visit was Putin’s first to one of the Ukrainian regions that Russia claimed in September to have annexed.

Vladimir Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Occupied Mariupol
Vladimir Putin Makes Surprise Visit to Occupied Mariupol

President Vladimir Putin made a surprise trip to occupied Mariupol, the Ukrainian city largely destroyed in a months-long Russian siege, according to a Kremlin statement and video released on state television. 

The highly classified visit was Putin’s first to one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia claimed in September to have annexed as part of its invasion launched in February 2022. Ukrainian officials decried Putin’s visit, made under the cover of darkness. 

The trip, which the Kremlin on Sunday said hadn’t been planned in advance, came after the Russian leader on Friday was issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for alleged “war crimes.” 

Putin’s stops in Mariupol and later in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don followed his unannounced appearance in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, on Saturday. 

The visit to Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in southern Donetsk province, came almost a year to the day after a Kremlin strike on a drama theater there allegedly killed hundreds of civilians taking shelter. 

Amnesty International, in an investigation published in June, labeled the March 16, 2022, strike “a clear war crime” by Russian forces, saying the theater “was clearly recognizable as a civilian object, perhaps more so than any other location in the city.” 

Read more: Xi’s Embrace of Putin Dents His Chances as Peacemaker on Ukraine 

Putin arrived and departed Mariupol by helicopter, according to video the Kremlin released on state television. Putin reviewed reconstruction and restoration work, but didn’t meet with regional officials who would typically accompany him. 

In the 40-minute video Putin is shown driving at night in a black SUV, maneuvering through concrete blocks on the road and even once stopping at a red light, which is highly unusual for state leader’s driving protocol. 

“As befits a thief, Putin visited Ukrainian Mariupol, under the cover of night,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Twitter. Mykhailo Podolyak, a presidential aide, tweeted that Putin’s visit to a city where so many had died was “cynical” and that “the criminal always returns to the crime scene.”

Putin visited a newly-built apartment block, where he stood in a playground surrounded by bodyguards while an official showed him photographs of reconstruction works. Later, Putin was shown meeting with local people who told him how grateful they were for Russia’s “victory.” 

One man chatted with Putin on the sidewalk. “My birthday is 15 days after yours. I am also 70, but I was left with nothing,” he said. “Now he has everything,” said a woman in a group near him. The man then invited Putin to his apartment and the president made a brief visit.

Putin also drove to the city’s orchestra hall, where he was shown an auditorium and a room filled with musical instruments. At one point the video showed Putin rolling past ruined houses on streets with military guards. Few details can be clearly seen as most of the nighttime video was shot from the back seat of the car.

Deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin in the video told Putin that Russia’s troops didn’t destroy Mariupol’s apartment blocks, and blamed Ukraine’s army for shooting at civilian infrastructure. 

Ukraine estimates about 20,000 civilians were killed in the city during Russia’s siege, including those in the theater bombing. Mariupol had a pre-war population of about 450,000. 

From Mariupol Putin flew to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia where he met with military commanders about his war in Ukraine.

Read more: Putin Faces War-Crime Warrant Issued by International Court 

On Saturday, while in Crimea, Putin attended the opening of a children’s art school and visited a youth center, according to Kremlin.  

The venues seemed carefully chosen after the ICC cited Putin for war crimes related to the alleged abduction of children from Ukraine. The warrant, a mostly symbolic move since Russia is not a signatory to the court, was shrugged off by the Kremlin. The US is also not a signatory to the Hague-based body. 

Putin’s visit to Crimea was termed a “reunification” event, nine years after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. 

Putin had been expected to take part in the day’s activities via video link, according to his spokesman, but was shown on state TV strolling in Sevastopol, Crimea’s biggest city, dressed in blue jeans and a cardigan. He also was shown on state TV driving an SUV in Sevastopol. 

The Russian president’s previous full-scale visit to the Crimean peninsula was in 2020. 

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In December, though, he drove a Mercedes across the Kerch Strait bridge, repaired and reopened after being seriously damaged by an explosion and fire in October. 

The bridge, which links Crimea to the Krasnodar region on Russia’s mainland, was constructed after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and opened to road traffic in 2018. 

The Kremlin blamed a Ukrainian act of “terrorism” for the incident, while Ukrainian officials never claimed responsibility. Intensified Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure facilities started within days of the incident and have continued since then.   

--With assistance from .

(Updates with more details, Ukrainian reaction from ninth paragraph.)

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