In an apparent show of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant charging the Russian president with war crimes, Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was destroyed by his invading forces last year.
State television showed Putin arriving in the port city by helicopter on Sunday morning. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, claimed the entire trip to Mariupol was planned “spontaneously” and said Putin walked around the frontline city without a full motorized escort, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
It was the president’s first visit to Russian-held territory in Ukraine, including four provinces Moscow is trying to annex, since a full-scale invasion of the country began last year.
Putin has largely avoided visiting the frontline, staying mostly in Moscow, where access to even his top officials is highly restricted, and holding meetings online.
After his visit to Mariupol, Putin made a rare public appearance in southern Russia’s Rostov-on-Don, where he heard a report from General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the chief commander of the Ukraine campaign.
The trip to Mariupol, part of four provinces claimed by Russia – although it does not control the entire region – came a day after Putin made his first visit to Crimea, a peninsula seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The unannounced trip underscores Putin’s determination to continue with Russia’s heavy casualties, economic isolation and weak offensive despite the ICC warrant, which alleges “personal criminal responsibility” for the forced relocation of children from occupied territories in Ukraine.
Kiev says more than 16,000 children have been abducted during the war, including more than 1,000 from Mariupol, which Russian forces razed to the ground after a brutal three-month siege.
Putin, who has not commented on the charges, and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova could face arrest if they travel to any country that is part of the ICC.
In state television footage, Putin was seen driving a black jeep through the streets of Mariupol, accompanied by a top Russian official, Marat Khusnulin, who showed him Russia’s efforts to rebuild the city.
He was taken to the Philharmonic Concert Hall in Mariupol, where Russia planned to hold the trial of Ukrainian prisoners accused of war crimes last year.
He was also shown on state TV speaking to people, including local residents who told the president they were “praying for him” and thanked Russia for rebuilding their apartments after their homes were destroyed.
Ukrainian officials estimate that at least 22,000 of Mariupol’s pre-war civilian population of half a million died in the siege, and the full number could be many times higher.
But speaking on Sunday, Khusnulin said residents had started to return to Mariupol because of Russia’s reconstruction efforts. “People are starting to come back. After seeing that the reconstruction is being done, people are actively returning, he said.
He promised to complete the reconstruction of the heavily damaged city center by the end of this year. He claimed that Mariupol was devastated when the Ukrainian army retreated.
Standing next to him, Putin added: “They are Nazis. Civilized people don’t do that.”