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Defying arrest warrant, Putin visits Russian-occupied Mariupol and Crimea

People in coats on a sidewalk talk to Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with local residents during a visit to Mariupol, Ukraine, on Sunday.,
(Associated Press)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies reported on Sunday morning, in his first trip to the Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin arrived in Mariupol late Saturday after visiting Crimea, a short distance to the southwest, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s illegal annexation from Ukraine. Mariupol became a worldwide symbol of defiance after outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May.

The visits, during which he was shown chatting with residents in Mariupol and visiting an art school and a children’s center in Crimea, were a show of defiance by the Russian leader two days after a court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges. Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of him facing trial anytime soon.

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The trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline, Russian news reports said, without specifying exactly when the visit took place. The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.

Following his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city, and conferred with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian military operations in Ukraine. Peskov said.

Turkey’s leader and U.N. officials say a deal that allows grain to flow from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia was extended.

Peskov told reporters that the trip had been unannounced, and that Putin intended to “inspect the work of the [command] post in its ordinary mode of operation.”

Speaking to the state RIA agency Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made clear that Russia intended to stay in Mariupol. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its ruined downtown by the end of the year.

“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Khusnulin told RIA.

When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained out of a prewar population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.

Mariupol’s plight came into focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukraine.

A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater that was serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested that the real death toll could be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defense tying down Russian forces and coming to symbolize Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.

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Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved on last September during its invasion to officially claim four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, following referendums that Kyiv and the West described as a sham.

The ICC on Friday accused Putin of bearing personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. U.N. investigators also said there was evidence for the forced transfer of hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to Ukrainian government figures, over 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled territories or Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.

Peskov reaffirmed on Sunday that Moscow considers “any decisions by the International Criminal Court legally null and void.” While the move by the ICC on Friday was welcomed by Kyiv, the chances of Putin facing trial are slim because Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.

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