KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September and a show of defiance after the ICC issued a warrant war crimes arrest charges.
Putin arrived in Mariupol on Saturday after visiting Crimea, southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday. He was shown chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and children’s center in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Mariupol has become a worldwide symbol of resistance after Ukrainian forces, outgunned and manned, held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May. Much of the city has been reduced to rubble by Russian bombing.
Putin did not comment on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood that he faces trial anytime soon. The Kremlin, which does not recognize the authority of the ICC, dismissed his move as “legally void”.
The surprise trip also came ahead of a scheduled visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, which is expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told “Fox News Sunday” that any calls for a ceasefire in Ukraine coming from the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable to the United States because it would merely ” ratify the Russian conquest to this day”. and give Moscow “time to repair, retrain, reorganize and try to plan a renewed offensive”.
Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove around the city’s “memorial sites”, the concert hall and the coast, Russian news outlets said. State-run channel Rossiya 24 on Sunday showed Putin chatting to locals outside what appeared to be a newly built housing estate, and being shown walking around one of the apartments.
After his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city about 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) to the east, and conferred with General Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Russian military operations in Ukraine. Peskov said.
Peskov said the trip had not been announced and that Putin intended to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its ordinary operating mode.”
Speaking to state news agency RIA-Novosti, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made it clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish rebuilding his destroyed downtown by the end of the year.
“People started coming back. When they saw that the reconstruction was underway, people started actively returning,” Khusnullin told RIA.
Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expressed contempt for Putin’s trip to Mariupol.
“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” he said. “As the countries of the civilized world announce the arrest of the ‘war director’ in case of crossing the border, the organizer of the murders of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the city ruins and mass graves”.
When Moscow completely captured the city in May, some 100,000 people remained, out of a pre-war population of 450,000. Many have been trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The relentless shelling left rows of shattered or hollowed out buildings.
The plight of Mariupol first came to international attention with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9, 2022, less than two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began. A week later, about 300 people were reportedly killed in the bombing of a theater used as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by The Associated Press has suggested the true death toll may be closer to 600.
A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days at the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their stubborn defense pinning down Russian forces and becoming the symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the face of aggression from Moscow.
Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, a move most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved in September to officially claim four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, a following referendums that Kiev and the West have described as a farce.
The ICC on Friday accused Putin of taking personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. UN investigators also said there was evidence of the forcible transfer of “hundreds” of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to Ukrainian government data, more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled territories or to Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.
While the ICC’s move has been welcomed by Kiev, the chances of Putin going to trial are slim because Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its citizens.
Ukrainian officials said Sunday that at least three civilians had been killed and 19 injured by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours. The deaths occurred in the eastern Donetsk region amid fierce battles for control of the city of Bakhmut, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian TV.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a Telegram update that a 51-year-old woman was “fighting for her life” after being hit by shrapnel as Russian troops fired on the border town of Dvorichna.
Top Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said Ukrainian troops were holding the line near Bakhmut, a key target in a long and hard-fought Russian offensive, adding that the enemy’s plan to occupy the city “is now foundering”.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Forces said Russian troops were “tactically incapable of completing” the capture of Bakhmut.
“Yes, there are very active battles, (the Russians) continue to carry out several dozen attacks by inertia, but they suffer huge losses,” Serhii Cherevaty told Ukrainian TV, adding that the Ukrainian defenses are “bleeding the enemy, disrupting his spirit fights.”
Bakhmut’s capture would give the Kremlin a battlefield victory after months of setbacks and could pave the way for Russia to threaten other Ukrainian strongholds in the region, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Russian forces bombed a house in Bilozerka, a suburb west of the southern city of Kherson, and a woman who was pulled from the rubble has been hospitalized, according to the Kherson Regional Military Administration, writing in Telegram.
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