Putin's Surprise Visit to Mariupol

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol, a war-ravaged port city in Ukraine’s Donbas region. This marked Putin’s first trip to the Russian-occupied territories since the conflict began. The visit followed Putin’s unannounced trip to Crimea, which some observers saw as an act of defiance. The visit came just two days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian President, accusing him of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.

Mariupol was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, and it marked Russia’s first major victory after failing to seize Kyiv and focusing instead on southeastern Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol a war crime.

During his visit, Putin talked to residents and visited a family in their home. He also visited a newly-built residential neighborhood, which was constructed by the Russian military, and he met with the top commander of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of the four regions Putin annexed in September, along with Luhansk, comprising most of the industrialized Donbas region, which has seen the largest battle in Europe for generations. The city had a population of half a million people before the war and was home to the Azovstal steel plant, one of Europe’s largest.

The downtown area was badly damaged during the war, and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who accompanied Putin, expressed the desire to finish the reconstruction of the center by the end of the year, at least the facade part, and stated that the center is very beautiful.

There was no immediate reaction to the visit from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made a number of trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy. However, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin while running what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The visit was seen by some as an act of defiance, as Putin had just received an ICC arrest warrant accusing him of a war crime. Putin has not commented publicly on the ICC warrant. The visit was significant as it marked the closest Putin had been to the front lines since the year-long war began.

The visit to Mariupol came after Putin’s unannounced visit to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. Putin’s visit to the Crimean peninsula, which he annexed in 2014, was viewed by some as a provocative move amid heightened tensions with Ukraine.