Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Mariupol, state media reported on Sunday, his first to the city since it was captured after a long 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, more than 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 steelworks, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in the city.
According to the official TASS news agency on Sunday, Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter on Saturday and toured the city, sometimes driving a car.
He visited several sites and spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on the reconstruction work in 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.
Russian state television showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by Moscow-appointed local governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Razvozhayev said on the Telegram messaging app that Putin was to participate in the opening of a children’s art school via video link.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. At the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is still with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum not recognized by Kyiv and the international community.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he aimed to retake Crimea, although Moscow refused to include it in any peace talks.
ICC warrant ‘cancelled’
Putin’s visit came after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him on Friday for “deportation” of Ukrainian children.
kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the beginning of the conflict in February 2022, many of them have been placed in institutions and foster homes.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP that Putin now faces arrest if he sets foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has not publicly commented on the warrant, but the Kremlin has dismissed its validity as ‘void’ since Russia did not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.
The Hague-based court’s decision came ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on Monday to sign deals billed as ushering in a new era of relations.
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 criticized Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.
Grains agreement extended
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides had agreed to extend a deal that allowed Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blocked by Russian warships.
But there was disagreement over the terms.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said the deal had been extended for 120 days, but a spokeswoman for The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow had agreed to a 60-day extension.
The agreement negotiated by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 had allowed the safe passage of exports and had already been extended by 120 days in November.
The fighting is now concentrated in the eastern region of Donetsk in Ukraine, particularly in the city of Bakhmut.
Russian strikes hit the nearby town of Kramatorsk on Saturday, killing two people and injuring 10, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, who accused Moscow of using cluster bombs in the attack.
AFP reporters in Kramatorsk heard a dozen explosions go off almost simultaneously shortly before 4 p.m. local time (1400 GMT) and saw smoke billowing over a park in the south of the city.
A woman died at the scene from her injuries, they saw.