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Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a shock go to on Saturday night to occupied Mariupol, the jap Ukrainian metropolis that Russia seized final Could after largely destroying it throughout a brutal months-long siege.

The go to was a symbolic show of bravado by Putin, only a day after the Worldwide Prison Court docket issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged warfare crimes, and proper earlier than a state go to to Russia by Chinese language President Xi Jinping, which begins Monday. It was Putin’s first recognized journey to occupied Ukrainian territory for the reason that begin of his invasion final February, by which the West estimates some 200,000 Russian troopers have been killed or wound.

Highlighting the safety considerations, the Kremlin introduced the go to solely on Sunday morning after Putin had already left.

Putin was flown into Mariupol on a helicopter. The town, which is situated on the Azov Sea, sits about 60 miles south of energetic preventing. It’s a part of the Donetsk area, one among 4 Ukrainian provinces, together with Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, that Russia claims to have annexed, in violation of worldwide legislation.

Video launched by the Kremlin confirmed Putin driving a car by a number of neighborhoods to examine “the shoreline, the theater constructing, and memorable locations” and reconstruction work within the metropolis, which was badly broken by airstrikes, in response to a authorities readout posted Sunday.

Different movies carried on Russian state media early Sunday morning confirmed Putin sitting in an empty corridor of a rebuilt philharmonic, in addition to speaking to a small group of residents in nighttime darkness exterior a newly constructed residential advanced within the Nevsky district, a undertaking extensively utilized by Russian propagandists to reward Moscow’s swift rebuilding of the town.

“It is a little island of paradise right here,” one lady mentioned within the video earlier than Putin toured an condominium within the constructing.

In feedback on Mariupol message boards on the favored Telegram messaging app, some native residents complained that nobody confirmed Putin “the empty pits which can be the foundations of destroyed homes.”

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the ousted Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram that “Putin or one among his doubles” had visited Mariupol in a single day. Andryushchenko referred to Putin as a “scarecrow,” saying he most likely visited at night time to cover the dimensions of destruction Russian forces had waged on the town. At night time, he wrote, “the true great thing about the Russian occupation design is hidden by darkness.”

Different Ukrainian officers additionally prompt, with out offering proof, that Putin had probably not visited however despatched a physique double.

ICC points arrest warrant for Putin over warfare crimes in Ukraine

The Russian president’s journey was a part of a two-day tour throughout occupied territories.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin visited Crimea, which Russian invaded and illegally annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s absorption of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin additionally mentioned that Putin had visited the Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don for a gathering with high army commanders on the regional Protection Ministry headquarters.

Putin’s journey appeared designed to make a muscular show of Russia’s claims to invaded Ukrainian territory, and to showcase tangible features in a warfare that has largely stalled after a string of Russian army defeats final fall. Along with the estimated 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, Ukrainian army casualties are estimated at as much as 120,000 and, in response to the United Nations, greater than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed.

The go to to Mariupol additionally projected a picture of Putin as defiant and unbowed after the Worldwide Prison Court docket (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest, saying he was personally accountable for the prison abduction and deportation of Ukrainian youngsters taken throughout the Russian chief.

Not less than 1,000 such youngsters have been relocated to Russia from Mariupol, in response to Maria Lvova-Belova, Russian youngsters’s rights ombudswoman. The ICC on Friday additionally issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova, accusing her of the identical crimes as Putin.

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To solidify Russia’s management over the occupied territories, Moscow has pushed to carry the native inhabitants into its authorized orbit by issuing Russian passports and making it straightforward to enroll in modest authorities advantages. Russia has sought to current the annexation of the 4 areas as a fait accompli, and the Russian structure was even rewritten to include them.

After Putin’s go to, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, tried to painting the president as targeted on easing the transition for residents.

“In dialog with the president, residents of Mariupol raised questions associated to the delay in paying salaries, acquiring Russian citizenship, and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov advised the Tass state-controlled information company. “The president will give directions to take care of the state of affairs.”

Mariupol turned an emblem of Ukrainian resistance throughout weeks of relentless Russian assaults, together with the bombing of a drama theater, which had been used as a shelter by a whole bunch of individuals.

It’s also one of many few occupied regional hubs Moscow nonetheless firmly controls, after its troops have been pressured to retreat from a lot of the northeast Kharkiv area and from Kherson metropolis within the south, throughout Ukrainian counteroffensives final fall.

The entrance line has barely moved within the winter months, with two sides engaged in a warfare of attrition that has value many lives and depleted ammunition provides.

Ukrainian forces, emboldened by new weapons provides from its Western allies, are believed to be gearing up for an offensive within the spring, with President Volodymyr Zelensky vowing to reclaim all Russian-occupied areas, together with Crimea.

Ukraine in need of expert troops and munitions as losses, pessimism develop

Putin has proven no signal that he’s prepared to barter with Kyiv and as an alternative has sought to normalize the warfare in current public speeches, apparently searching for to arrange Russians for a protracted combat.

Following the invasion, the West has largely shunned Moscow, imposing export controls and an enormous array of financial sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s warfare machine.

However on Monday, the arrival of Xi is about to offer Beijing’s strongest present of help for the reason that warfare began. China, which insists it’s impartial within the battle and has sought to painting itself as a possible mediator.

For Putin, Xi’s go to bolsters the Kremlin’s basic speaking level that energetic help for Ukraine is restricted to Western capitals whereas Russia actively cultivates alliances elsewhere.

Siobhán O’Grady, David L. Stern and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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