Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise trip to Mariupol, the Kremlin said Sunday, his first visit to territory captured from Ukraine since the start of Moscow’s offensive.
Just hours after Putin visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation, video distributed by the Kremlin showed him landing by helicopter in Mariupol, the port city that Moscow captured after a long siege last spring.
The Russian leader took a tour of the city and was seen driving a car. The Kremlin said he visited a rebuilt musical theatre and followed the presentation of a report on reconstruction work.
“We’re praying for you,” a resident told Putin, referring to the city as “a little piece of paradise”, according to images broadcast by Russian state TV, showing the visit took place at night.
It was Putin’s first trip to the eastern Donbas region since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in February last year, and comes almost a year after it announced the capture of Mariupol after a campaign that included the destruction of the Azovstal steel works, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the strategic port city.
The visit also comes ahead of a trip to Moscow this week by Chinese President Xi Jinping, widely seen as a diplomatic coup for Putin.
Beijing, a strategic ally of Moscow, has touted the trip as a “visit for peace” as it seeks to play mediator in the Ukraine conflict.
China has sought to position itself as a neutral party, urging Moscow and Kyiv to open negotiations.
But Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.
Putin visited ‘in person’
Putin also met army chiefs including the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
He also made a surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday, with Russian state TV showing him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Razvozhayev said on the messaging app Telegram that Putin had been expected to take part in the opening of a children’s art school by video link.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.
‘Void’ ICC warrant
The weekend visits came after the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, issued an arrest warrant for Putin over Russia’s alleged deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children during the conflict.
Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict, many of them placed in institutions and foster homes.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has not commented publicly on the warrant but the Kremlin dismissed its validity as “void” since Russia did not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction.
Grain deal extended
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Moscow and Kyiv had agreed to extend a deal that allows Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blocked by Russian warships.
However, there is still a disagreement over the terms.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said the deal had been extended for 120 days, but a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow had agreed to just 60 days.
The deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July had already been extended for 120 days in November.
The fighting is now concentrated in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, particularly the city of Bakhmut.
Russian strikes hit the nearby city of Kramatorsk on Saturday, killing two people and wounding 10, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, who accused Moscow of using cluster bombs in the attack.
AFP journalists in Kramatorsk heard around 10 explosions go off nearly simultaneously just before 4:00 pm local time (1400 GMT) and saw smoke rising above a park in the southern part of the city.
A woman died at the scene from her wounds, they saw.