Days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a defiant tour of the city of Mariupol, which Moscow illegally annexed in September, in his first trip to Ukrainian territory.
The Kremlin said in a statement on Sunday that Putin arrived in the port city by helicopter and “travelled through several districts of the city.”
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusulin said in a separate post on his Telegram channel, that Putin “personally inspected the building of the Philharmonic Society, one of the residential areas and assessed the roads by driving a car around the city”. “
Ukraine handed over Mariupol to Russia in May after a months-long conflict that saw some of the most brutal Russian attacks of the conflict, including an attack on a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter and a maternity hospital. Was doing. Most of the strategic cities are still in ruins after relentless bombardment.
It was Moscow’s first major victory since its invasion in February, after failing to capture Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
But by then it had become a worldwide symbol of defiance after a small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days at the vast Azovstal steelworks east of the city, in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. Their tenacious defense tied down the Russian army and halted their eastern offensive.
An estimated 100,000 people remained in the city after its occupation out of a pre-war population of 450,000.
Khusnullin said on Sunday he had reported to Putin on “the construction of new housing and infrastructure, improvement of the regions, road construction and economic development”.
In a separate interview with the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, he said that “when they saw that restoration was underway, people began to actively” return to the city.
NBC News was unable to verify this claim.
It was Putin’s second unannounced visit of the weekend to the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. He traveled to nearby Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made several visits to battlefields to boost troop morale, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin during the year-long conflict, and his trip to Mariupol marks the closest Putin has come since the invasion. Was.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move deemed illegal by much of the world. Following a referendum that Kiev and the West described as a sham in September, Moscow claimed four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, including Donetsk, where Mariupol is located.
The Kremlin statement said he had also met at the Rostov-on-Don command post in southern Russia with the top command of its military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the war. .
While Putin has largely been exempt from the complaint, some pro-war agitators in Moscow see the presence of senior ministers on the battlefield as evidence that he is not strong enough on Ukraine.
His visit came a day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, accusing him of committing “war crimes” for overseeing the illegal abduction and deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
It said there were reasonable grounds to believe that Putin took personal responsibility for the crimes, and that he failed to exercise proper control over subordinates who committed the acts.
Moscow has consistently 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 treat it,” he said in a Telegram post on Friday.
Elsewhere, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire oligarch who runs the Wagner Group private army, said on Saturday he plans to recruit 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.
“We have days when we are recruiting 1200 people a day. On an average, the number is swinging between 500-800 [people] And the development is currently accelerating, Prigozhin said in a statement posted Saturday on the Russian social media site VK.
The Wagner group had previously recruited convicts from Russian prisons, but said it had stopped in January. The country’s prison population fell by more than 20,000 between August and November, the biggest drop in a decade, according to data from the Russian Penal Service published in November.