Putin visits Mariupol in first trip to fallen city

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to Mariupol, it was reported on Sunday, his first to the city since it was captured after a lengthy siege at the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

The trip comes after an arrest warrant was issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court, over Russia’s alleged deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children during the conflict.

Russia besieged Mariupol at the start of its offensive last year, destroying the Azovstal steel works, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city.

According to state news agency TASS on Sunday, Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter on Saturday and took a tour of the city.

But the visit has been met with skepticism amid claims Putin has been using a body double on recent trips and media appearances to hide his ill-health. 

Putin's surprise visit to Crimea was his first to the peninsula since he sent troops to Ukraine

Putin’s surprise visit to Crimea was his first to the peninsula since he sent troops to Ukraine

He visited several sites and spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on the reconstruction work of the city. 

Putin’s stop in Mariupol comes after his surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.

It is the first time Putin is known to have entered Ukrainian territory captured by his forced since the invasion last February.

The brazen move is a new look for Putin, who has so far avoided getting anywhere near to front lines.

Only Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is said to have visited the Donbas prior to Putin.

The 70-year-old flew in by helicopter after visiting Crimea, which he annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin drove along the streets of Mariupol as his vice-premier Marat Khusnullin pointed to repair work carried out by the Russians in footage from defence ministry-owned channel Zvezda.

Russian state TV showed 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 or the international community.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he aimed to take back Crimea, though Moscow has refused to include it in possible peace talks.

Putin’s visit came after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the ‘deportation’ of Ukrainian children.

The Hague-based court said it had also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, 38, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, on similar charges. 

Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022, 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.

Putin visited a 200-seat theatre complex while in Mariupol, video shows

Putin visited a 200-seat theatre complex while in Mariupol, video shows

Fighting is currently concentrated in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine

Fighting is currently concentrated in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine

The dictator was also seen driving through the streets of occupied Ukrainian territory

The dictator was also seen driving through the streets of occupied Ukrainian territory

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.

The Hague-based court’s decision came ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on Monday to sign accords touted as ushering in a new era of ties.

China, a major Russian ally, has sought to position itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, 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 is hoping China will give him both military and economic aid for his blitzed sanctions-hit and war-damaged economy.

The PR stunt also followed claims from his own supporters that unlike Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Putin had been slow to visit the war zone.

Mariupol is currently far from the front line although it has been hit by recent car bombings.

Putin was pictured driving through the streets in a lengthy clip, but only the back of his head was visible, prompting speculation it may have been a body double. 

‘As you can see we have more or less repaired the roads,’ said Khusnullin, amid claims that much taxpayers’ cash earmarked for Mariupol has been stolen.

‘Good ones,’ replied Putin.

Yet it was pitch black so hard to see anything.

The deputy premier said: ‘You will see on your left a good new traffic light, and a garden. We have started public transport.

Pro-Kremlin activists held protests in front of the US embassy in Moscow and other Western embassies Saturday

Pro-Kremlin activists held protests in front of the US embassy in Moscow and other Western embassies Saturday

‘110 buses are working and if all is well we want to start the first trams by the summer.

‘Tram lines are being repaired, we have trams.’

In a separate clip he was seen talking to residents of the city, asking them whether they liked buildings the Russians claim to have built for them. Only a side-on view of the leader was visible.

TASS state news agency reported: ‘The president talked to residents of the Nevsky district and visited an apartment at an invitation from a family living there.’

The Kremlin said the vice-premier briefed Putin on ‘the construction of new residential districts, social and educational facilities, utility infrastructure and medical centres’.

A leading political analyst Sergey Markov admitted that there were doubts it was actually Putin – and not a double – in Mariupol.

Insisting it WAS Putin, Markov said the visit had been arranged low-key with little visible security so as to ‘deceive NATO intelligence’.

But he acknowledged that ‘the Western media do not believe that Putin was in Mariupol, because in the short video Putin is only seen from behind, and says almost nothing. Well, let them not believe. We also do not believe the Western media.’

Rumours have swirled that on some recent visits a doppelgänger has pretended to be Putin.

Similar footage of Putin driving a Mercedes over the bombed Kerch Bridge linking annexed Crimea to Russia was also widely seen as a body double.

Separately, the dictator was seen at the Russian military control room in Rostov-on-Don with his top two commanders, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, and General Sergei ‘Armageddon’ Surovikin, deputy chief.

The footage was evidently designed to show Putin – who has been the subject of poor health rumours – in charge of a united command.

The suited dictator strode upstairs and seemed to walk normally, while earlier footage in Sevastopol, Crimea showed him walking awkwardly.

Earlier Putin stripped Surovikin of command over the war, and handed it to Gerasimov.

‘The head of the state heard reports from Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and a number of military commanders,’ said a Kremlin statement.

He ‘examined the coastline of Mariupol in the area of the yacht club, the theatre building, [and] memorable places of the city’, reported Interfax.

Putin has previously visited the Rostov command post, which is not in the war zone.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides had agreed to extend a deal that has allowed Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blocked by Russian warships.

Cereal exports from Ukraine

Cereal exports from Ukraine

But there was 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 a 60-day extension.

The deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 had allowed for the safe passage of exports, and 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 rise above a park in the southern part of the city.

A woman died at the scene from her wounds, they saw.

Source link

Pin It on Pinterest