Russian president Vladimir Putin visited the port city of Mariupol on his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow had illegally annexed in September.
US state news agencies reported on Sunday that he had been in Mariupol, which became a global symbol of resistance after Ukrainian forces held out at a steel mill for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control in May.
On Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine.
The visits, which showed him chatting with residents of Mariupol and visiting an art school and a children’s center in Crimea, showed the Russian leader’s defiance two days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes. cost.
Mariupol was all but razed to the ground by the Russian bombing last year, which seems not to have been emphasized in the footage released by Russian TV of the visit.
Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which exacerbated his international isolation despite the improbability of facing trial any time soon.
The trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, which is expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.
Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline, the Russian reports said, without specifying exactly when the visit took place. They said Putin had also met with residents in the Nevskyi district of the city.
In a conversation with the state agency RIA on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made it clear that Russia will remain in Mariupol.
He said the government hopes to complete reconstruction of the damaged city center by the end of the year.
“People are starting to return,” he said. “When they saw that reconstruction was going on, people started to actively return.”
When Moscow completely captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heating or electricity. Relentless bombing left row after row of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
Mariupol’s plight first came into focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops entered Ukraine.
A week later, about 300 people were reportedly killed in the bombing of a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested the true death toll could be closer to 600.
A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel mill in eastern Mariupol before surrendering. Their tenacious defense tied down the Russian troops and symbolized Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move deemed illegal by most of the world, and last September went further to officially claim four regions in the south and east of Ukraine as Russian territory, after referenda that defeated Kiev and described the West as a sham.