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Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, Second Stop in Tour of Occupied Ukraine

Europe|Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, Second Stop in Tour of Occupied Ukraine


The surprise trip signals the Kremlin is trying to keep up business as usual, two days after an international court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president.

Vladimir Putin, in a classroom, wearing a dark sweater, looks down at a pile of clay he's touching. Another man watches him.
President Vladimir V. Putin visiting a children’s art center in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Saturday.Credit...Sputnik

Andrés R. MartínezIvan Nechepurenko

March 19, 2023Updated 3:09 a.m. ET

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia traveled to Mariupol, his second surprise visit to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine this weekend, and a defiant gesture soon after an international court had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Mr. Putin flew to Mariupol, a major Ukrainian industrial hub on the Azov Sea, by helicopter, the Kremlin said in a statement on Sunday. In the city, Mr. Putin drove from the airport through several neighborhoods, the Kremlin said, inspecting reconstruction works with a top Russian official responsible for infrastructure. The Kremlin also said that Mr. Putin spoke with some local residents.

Before the Russian invasion turned Mariupol into one of the fiercest urban battles of recent times, the city was home to more than 400,000 people and the site of Europe’s largest steel plant.

It was Mr. Putin’s second unannounced trip of the weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the closest the Russian leader has been to the front lines since the invasion last February. His trip on Saturday to Crimea was timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula.

The two high-profile visits were also defiant gestures from the Kremlin less than 48 hours after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest. The warrant claims that Mr. Putin bore individual criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children that has taken place since Russia’s invasion last year.

Apart from Mariupol, Mr. Putin on Sunday also visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he met with top military commanders involved in the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

Since the start of winter, both sides have been locked in a grinding battle for land in the east where the front line has barely moved, each army running short of ammunition and experiencing mounting casualties. Mr. Putin has shown no signs of easing up or heading to the negotiating table, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has vowed to recapture all the territory that Russia grabbed, including Crimea.

So far, Ukraine has regained about half of that territory. And it has persuaded several of its allies in NATO to provide their most valuable weapons, including tanks, missiles, antimissile systems and — just last week — fighter jets. As the war enters its second year, Mr. Putin has found himself further isolated, with a growing list of sanctions threatening to diminish Russia’s income from the sale of its oil and gas.

On Monday, he will host Moscow’s most important ally, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, giving Mr. Putin an opportunity to reiterate a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the war’s start: that international support for Ukraine is limited to Western countries.

China has said the three-day visit by Mr. Xi offers Beijing an opportunity to push Mr. Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a call with Mr. Zelensky could follow. But the United States has argued that China is not an honest broker and is providing Russia with much-needed supplies for the war, accusations that China has denied and that have helped drive relations between the two powers to the lowest in decades.

For months last year, Russia poured thousands of troops into Mariupol, one of the most prosperous Ukrainian cities before the war, and indiscriminately bombarded its apartment buildings. Outnumbered and outgunned, Ukraine’s military hung on for weeks, eventually taking shelter in the city’s steel factory. Finally in May, Ukrainian forces retreated, leaving the devastated city in Russian control.

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