Days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a defiant visit to the city of Mariupol on his first trip to the Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Putin flew to the port city by helicopter and «traveled through various districts of the city,» the Kremlin said in a statement on Sunday, adding that he met several residents and entered a family’s home after being invited inside. .
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said in a separate post on his Telegram channel that Putin «personally inspected one of the residential areas, the Philharmonic Society building and assessed the roads, driving a car around the city.»
Ukraine ceded Mariupol to Russia in May after months of fighting that saw some of the most brutal Russian attacks of the conflict, including an attack on a theater that doubled as the city’s largest bomb shelter and a maternity hospital. Much of the strategic city still lies in ruins after a relentless bombardment.
Having failed to take the Ukrainian capital kyiv, it was Moscow’s first major victory after its invasion in February.
But by then it had become a global symbol of defiance after a small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant east of the city in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. . His stubborn defense tied down the Russian forces and halted their eastern offensive.
An estimated 100,000 people remained in the city out of a pre-war population of 450,000 after its capture.
Khusnullin said on Sunday that he had briefed Putin on «the construction of new housing and infrastructure, the improvement of the territories, the construction of roads and economic development.»
In a separate interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, he said «people began to actively return» to the city «when they saw that the restoration was underway.»
NBC News was unable to verify this claim.
It was Putin’s second unannounced trip of the weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. He also traveled to nearby Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
While Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a series of trips to the battlefields to boost soldiers’ morale, Putin remained mostly inside the Kremlin during the year-long conflict, his visit to Mariupol the closest he could get. Putin has been on the front lines since the invasion.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal. Following referendums that kyiv and the West described as a sham in September, Moscow claimed four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, including Donetsk, where Mariupol is located.
The Kremlin statement said it had also met with the high command of its military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the war, at the Rostov-on-Don command post. in the south of Russia.
While Putin has been largely exempt from complaint, some of Moscow’s pro-war agitators have seen the failure of high-ranking ministers to appear on battlefields as evidence that they are not strong enough in Ukraine.
Their visits came a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, accusing him of committing the «war crime» of overseeing the abduction and illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
He said there were reasonable grounds to believe that Putin bore individual responsibility for the crimes and that he had failed to exercise adequate control over the subordinates who committed the acts.
Moscow has always denied the war crimes allegations, describing them as a «fantasy» aimed at discrediting Russia. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the court’s findings. “We do not recognize this court, we do not recognize the jurisdiction of this court. This is how we deal with this,” he said in a Telegram post on Friday.
However, «Russia cannot present this as a ‘foreign’ trip in defiance of the ICC,» according to Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow on Russia and Eurasia at London-based think tank Chatham House.
“Crimea and Mariupol are in the Ukraine, temporarily occupied by Russian troops, but to admit that fact would go against Moscow’s entire narrative that they should be treated as belonging to Russia,” he said.
“To admit that a day trip to Mariupol is a visit to a foreign country would also be to admit that Russia has illegally occupied its neighbor,” he added.
Elsewhere, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire oligarch who heads the Wagner Group’s private army, said on Saturday that he plans to recruit 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.
“We have days where we are recruiting up to 1,200 people per day. On average, the number ranges from 500 to 800 [people] and currently there is an increase in growth,” Prighozin said in a statement posted on the Russian social media site VK on Saturday.
The Wagner group previously recruited convicts from Russian prisons, but said it stopped in January. According to figures from the Russian prison service released in November, the country’s prison population fell by more than 20,000 between August and November, the biggest drop in a decade.