Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise night-time visit to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 19 that was seen as a way for him to legitimise the occupation of Ukraine’s territory to both his domestic audience and China’s President Xi Jinping, who is due in Moscow in the coming week.
Putin travelled there by helicopter after a visit to Crimea on the ninth anniversary of its annexation by Russia from Ukraine.
The visit triggered an angry reaction from Kyiv, with a presidential aide blasting the Kremlin for "cynicism" and "lack of remorse." Tens of thousands of residents of the city were killed in Russia’s battle to capture it last spring.
The trip also comes only a day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on charges of kidnapping hundreds of children from Ukraine.
Mariupol has become iconic after Russian forces pounded the city ceaselessly and tried to capture Ukraine’s Azov battalion that was besieged in the Azovstal metal works for months, before they finally surrendered.
The city, located in the Donetsk region, has been occupied by Russian forces for over a year and was the site of some of the worst devastation during the invasion.
The Kremlin said that Putin’s visit was “spontaneous” and state media showed footage of the Russian president driving himself, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, and describing their plans for reconstruction. He also stopped and met local residents.
Mariupol was once a bustling port city with a population of half a million people before the war broke out. However, much of it was reduced to ruins in the first months of the conflict and eventually fell to Russian forces in May. The civilian casualties during the bombardment of Mariupol were high, with an estimated 40,000 dying. Reports at the time said the streets were littered with corpses and locals were forced to bury their friends and relatives in the earth outside their houses as moving around the city had become so dangerous.
Putin's visit to Mariupol is the first time he has been to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine's Donbas region since the war began, and the closest he has come to the front lines. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on the other hand, has been to the front lines several times, where he has met with soldiers and handed out medals for bravery.
Putin legitimising the occupation
Putin’s trip to the bombed out city comes only days before Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to arrive in Russia on a state visit and will lend some measure of legitimacy to Russia’s occupation of the land bridge that now runs from the Russia’s southern border to Crimea.
Beijing has hailed Xi's trip to Moscow as a “peace trip” after China announced a 12-point peace plan proposal on the anniversary of the Russian invasion on February 24.
Putin and Xi are due to hold three days of talks covering a wide range of issues, including the war in Ukraine. Xi is then due to talk to President Zelenskiy and is expected to push his peace proposal.
However, Zelenskiy has been adamant that Ukraine will not agree to any territorial concessions and Bankova has insisted that Russian troops should completely quit all of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, before Kyiv would be willing to start peace talks. China’s proposal leaves Moscow with all the territory it currently occupies and suggests the bulk of eastern Ukraine become a demilitarized zone – a formula that is unlikely to win any support in Kyiv.
Putin’s trip was also designed to play to his domestic audience and reinforce the Kremlin’s message that the captured territories are Russian land. The Kremlin annexed four Ukraine regions in September, including Mariupol, which was a major Ukrainian seaport before its destruction by Russian hand last spring.
During his walkabout Putin met with locals in what was clearly a stage-managed encounter for the state media that accompanied him.
"Do you live here? Do you like it?" Putin was shown asking residents, reports Reuters.
"Very much. It's a little piece of heaven that we have here now," a woman replied, clasping her hands and thanking Putin for "the victory".
Khusnullin told Putin that local residents had been “actively” returning to the city, which has been all but flattened in the Russian assault. Mariupol had around half a million residents before the war, but even Russian authorities admit that it will have to be almost entirely rebuilt.
Kyiv lashes out
The reaction from Kyiv to Putin’s trip was strong and scathing.
"The criminal always returns to the crime scene... the murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and (its) graves. Cynicism and lack of remorse," Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter, as cited by the Moscow Times.
Ukraine's defence ministry added on Twitter that Putin visited the city at night, "as befits a thief."
"He watched the 'rebuilding of the city'... at night. Probably in order not to see the city, killed by his 'liberation,' in the light of day," the exiled Mariupol city council said on its Telegram account the Moscow Times reports.
While travelling in the region Putin also met with his army chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said, before flying on to Crimea and then Mariupol.