Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, a City Razed by Russian Forces

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made his first trip to territory captured by his forces since they launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, traveling to the ravaged city of Mariupol over the weekend. The Kremlin announced the trip on Sunday, in what appeared to be a defiant gesture just two days after an international court issued a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest for war crimes.

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukraine’s agony when Russian forces laid waste to it with artillery starting soon after the invasion. It later evolved into a beacon of Ukrainian resistance as the city’s last defenders endured a bitter siege at a steel plant for weeks there, becoming national heroes.


The Kremlin said Sunday that Mr. Putin flew by helicopter to the airport in Mariupol and toured several neighborhoods. It said that he inspected reconstruction works with a top Russian official responsible for infrastructure and spoke with local residents. It was not clear whether the visit took place on Saturday or Sunday; images released by Russian television showed Mr. Putin touring sites in darkness.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, described the visit as a “full-scale working trip” and stressed that many aspects of it were not planned. There was “no motorcade as such,” he said, adding that Mr. Putin drove himself through the city.

The battle for Mariupol was marked by wanton destruction by Russian forces, who at times opened fire on apartment buildings with tanks from close range. The battle featured the deadliest single assault on civilians during the war, when Russian forces bombed a regional theater where residents had taken shelter. How many people died during the siege of the city remains unknown, though the United Nations has said it was likely thousands.

Mr. Putin’s visit to Mariupol was his second unannounced trip of the weekend to parts of Ukraine that Russian forces have occupied. On Saturday, he went to Crimea in a visit timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.

But the visit to Mariupol was the closest Mr. Putin has come to the front lines since the start of the full-scale invasion last February — the city is around 50 miles southeast of the town of Vuhledar, where Russian forces sustained heavy losses just weeks ago and where fierce fighting is ongoing. Mr. Putin has set the capture of the entire eastern Donbas region as his military’s primary objective. Since Mariupol is in Donetsk province, part of Donbas, his visit was the first to a region at the heart of the war.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, by contrast, has made several visits to the front line and to recently recaptured parts of the country. In December, for example, he went to the embattled city of Bakhmut — another city in Donetsk province that also has been held up as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

The timing of Mr. Putin’s trip could be interpreted as an affront to the International Criminal Court, which on Friday accused him of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest. The warrant claims that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia since the full-scale invasion. Ukrainian authorities have said that many of the children were abducted from Mariupol.

While the I.C.C. warrant could impact Mr. Putin’s ability to travel overseas, the Kremlin has said it considers the warrant meaningless and vowed not to cooperate. Plus, Moscow considers Crimea and Donetsk to be part of Russia — a position widely condemned in the West — and so could attempt to portray his weekend travel as a domestic foray.

Even so, as the war enters its second year, Mr. Putin has found himself further isolated, with a growing list of Western sanctions threatening to diminish Russia’s income from the sale of its oil and gas.

On Monday, Mr. Putin will host Moscow’s most important ally, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, giving the Russian leader an opportunity to reiterate a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the war’s start: that international support for Ukraine is limited to Western countries.

China has said the three-day visit by Mr. Xi offers Beijing an opportunity to push Mr. Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a call with Mr. Zelensky could follow. But the United States has argued that China is not an honest broker and is providing Russia with much-needed supplies for the war, accusations that China has denied and that have helped drive relations between the two powers to their lowest in decades.

There was no immediate comment about Mr. Putin’s visit to Mariupol from Mr. Zelensky, who has vowed to recapture all of the territory lost to Russia including Crimea. Ukraine’s armed forces are expected to launch an offensive this spring, which some Ukrainian officials have said could involve attempting to cut off Crimea from the land that Russia holds in Donbas by pushing south toward the city of Melitopol, which is around 100 miles west of Mariupol.

For its push, Ukraine will use the latest influx of military aid including precision rockets capable of striking targets dozens of miles away that have been supplied by the United States and allies in Europe.

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