Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Mariupol, a Ukrainian city in the Donetsk region which has been occupied by Moscow’s forces since May of last year.
Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter and drove around several districts of the city, the TASS agency reported on Sunday, citing the Kremlin.
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Russian state television broadcast extended footage of Putin being shown around the city on Saturday night, meeting rehoused residents and being briefed on reconstruction efforts by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin.
Reports of the Mariupol visit came a day after Putin travelled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine. Russian state TV also showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol on Saturday, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has demanded that Russia withdraw from Crimea as well as the areas it has occupied since it launched an invasion last year.
‘Do you like it here?’
State media said, during his trip to Mariupol, Putin visited a new residential neighbourhood that had been built by the Russian military with the first people moving in last September.
From Mariupol, Putin went to Rostov in southern Russia, where state TV on Sunday showed him meeting Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Putin’s visit to Mariupol also comes after the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Friday it had issued an arrest warrant against him and accused him of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
Putin has yet to comment publicly on the warrant. The Kremlin spokesman has called it “null and void” and said Russia finds the very issues 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.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said Sunday that President Vladimir Putin’s surprise visit to Mariupol took place during the night “as befits a thief”.
“As befits a thief, Putin visited Ukrainian Mariupol, under the cover of night. First, it is safer. Also, darkness allows him to highlight what he wants to show, and keeps the city his army completely destroyed and its few surviving inhabitants away from prying eyes,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Kyiv and its allies say the invasion is an imperialistic land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people in Ukraine.