Russian President Putin visits the occupied city of Mariupol

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupolhis first trip to Ukrainian territory, which Moscow unlawfully annexed in September.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin arrived in Mariupol late on Saturday Visit to Crimea, just southwest of Mariupol, on the occasion of the ninth anniversary of the annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula by Ukraine. Mariupol became a global symbol of resistance after Ukrainian troops armed with overwhelming and unmanned weapons held out at a steel mill there for almost three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May.

The visits, during which Putin was shown chatting with local residents in Mariupol and visiting an art school and children’s center in Crimea, were a defiant display by the Russian leader two days after a court case issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes.

Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which has deepened his international isolation, although he is unlikely to face trial any time soon. The Kremlin has dismissed the International Criminal Court’s request as “legally void”.

The trip was also preceded by one planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, intended to give Putin a major diplomatic boost in his confrontation with the West.

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites”, concert hall and waterfront, Russian news reports said. State broadcaster Rossiya 24 showed on Sunday Putin chatting with locals in front of a newly built housing complex and being shown around one of the apartments.

After his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city about 180 kilometers to the east, and conferred with General Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. said Peskov.

Peskov told reporters that the trip was unannounced and that Putin intends to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its normal mode of operation.”

Speaking to the state-run RIA agency on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made it clear that Russia would stay in Mariupol. He said the government hopes to complete the reconstruction of the devastated city center by the end of the year.

‚ÄúPeople have started coming back. When they saw that reconstruction was underway, people actively returned,” Khusnullin told RIA.

When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained, from a pre-war population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows and rows of buildings destroyed or hollowed out.

The misery of Mariupol first came into international focus with an a Russian air raid on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people were reportedly killed in a bombing of a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring indicated that the The actual death toll could be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters lasted 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal Steel Works east of Mariupol before surrendering, their tenacious defenses pinned down Russian forces and became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow aggression.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move most of the world denounced as illegal, and last September officially claimed four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, following referendums supporting Kyiv and the West as referred to as a sham.

The ICC on Friday accused Putin of personal responsibility for kidnapping children from Ukraine. UN investigators also said there was evidence of the forced transfer of “hundreds” of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to the Ukrainian government, over 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled areas or to Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.

Peskov reiterated on Sunday that Moscow considers “any decision of the International Criminal Court to be legally null and void.” While the ICC’s move was welcomed by Kiev on Friday, the chances of Putin being brought to justice are slim as Moscow refuses to recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.

This is an evolving story. Check for updates as more information becomes available.

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