Apparently oblivious to the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant charging the Russian president with war crimes, Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian city, but all but destroyed by its invading army last year.
State television showed Putin arriving in the port city by helicopter early Sunday morning. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed the entire trip to Mariupol was planned “spontaneously” and said Putin drove around the frontline city without a full motorcade escort, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.
It was the president’s first trip to Russia-held territory in Ukraine, four provinces that Moscow is trying to annex, since a full-scale invasion of the country began last year.
Putin has largely avoided visiting the frontline in Moscow, where even his top officials have severely restricted access, and has held meetings online.
After visiting Mariupol, Putin made a rare public appearance in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, where he heard a report from Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the commander-in-chief of the Ukraine campaign.
The trip to Mariupol, part of four provinces claimed by Russia – although it does not control the entire region – came a day after Putin made his first visit to Crimea, a peninsula seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The unannounced trip underscores Putin’s determination to press ahead with the offensive despite Russia’s high casualties, economic isolation and an ICC warrant alleging “personal criminal responsibility” for the forced transfer of children from occupied territories in Ukraine.
Kiev says more than 16,000 children have been abducted during the war, including more than 1,000 from Mariupol, which Russian forces virtually razed to the ground after a brutal three-month siege.
Putin, who has not commented on the charges, and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova could face arrest if they travel to any country that is part of the ICC.
In state television footage, Putin was seen driving a black jeep through the streets of Mariupol, accompanied by Marat Khusnulin, a top Russian official, who showed him Russia’s efforts to rebuild the city.
He was taken to the Philharmonic Concert Hall in Mariupol, where Russia had planned to hold a show trial last year accusing Ukrainian prisoners of war crimes before scrapping the idea.
He was also shown speaking to people state TV said were local residents who told the president they were “praying for him” and thanked Russia for rebuilding their apartments after their homes were destroyed.
Ukrainian officials have said that at least 22,000 of Mariupol’s pre-war civilian population of half a million died in the siege and estimate that the full toll could be many times higher.
But speaking on Sunday, Khusnulin said residents were returning to Mariupol thanks to Russia’s reconstruction efforts. “People are starting to come back. When they saw that reconstruction was going on, people started actively returning,” he said.
He vowed to complete the reconstruction of the heavily damaged city center by the end of the year. He claimed that the retreat of Ukrainian forces led to the destruction in Mariupol.
Standing beside them, Putin added: “They are Nazis. Decent people wouldn’t do that.