Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sputnik | Reuters
A day after being indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to the Russian-held Ukrainian city of Mariupol, scene of some of the worst devastation of his year-long invasion.
State television on Saturday night showed extended footage of Putin being shown around the city, meeting resettled residents and being briefed on the reconstruction effort by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin.
The port city of Mariupol became known around the world as the epitome of death and destruction, as much of it was reduced to rubble during the first months of the war and finally fell to Russian forces in May.
Hundreds were killed in the bombing of a theater where families with children were sheltering. The Organization for Security and Co-operation and Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a local maternity hospital was a war crime. Moscow denied this and has said since its invasion on February 24 last year that it is not targeting civilians.
Putin’s visit appeared to be a defiant gesture after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday, charging him with 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 issues raised by the ICC “outrageous and unacceptable.”
The visit to Mariupol was the first Putin has made to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region since the beginning of the war and the closest he has brought to the frontline.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a series of trips to the battlefield to boost his troops’ morale and discuss strategy, Putin has largely remained in the Kremlin while directing what Russia calls its “military special operation” in the calls Ukraine.
Kiev and its allies say the invasion is an imperialist land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Ukraine.
‘Piece of Heaven’
Putin’s trip to Mariupol took place in the dark. State television showed him at the wheel of a car, driving through the city accompanied by his deputy prime minister, Khusnullin, and receiving detailed information about the reconstruction of housing, bridges, hospitals, transport routes and a concert hall.
State media said he visited a new residential area built by the Russian military, where the first people moved in last September.
“Do you live here? Do you like it?” Putin was shown questioning residents.
“A lot. It’s a little piece of heaven that we have here now,” replied one woman, folding her hands and thanking Putin for “the victory.”
Residents have returned “actively,” Khusnullin told Putin. Mariupol had a pre-war population of half a million and was home to the Azovstal Steelworks, one of the largest in Europe, where Ukrainian militants held out for weeks in underground tunnels and bunkers before being forced to surrender.
“The city center was badly damaged,” said Khusnullin. “We want to finish (reconstruct) the center by the end of the year, at least the facade part. The center is very beautiful.”
There was no immediate reaction to the visit from the Ukrainian government.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four largely Russian-held regions of Ukraine that Putin persuaded to annex in September in a move rejected as illegal by most countries in the United Nations General Assembly.
Putin traveled there by helicopter from Ukraine after a visit to Crimea on the ninth anniversary of its annexation by Russia.
From Mariupol he traveled to Rostov in southern Russia, where state television on Sunday showed him meeting with Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Source : www.cnbc.com