President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia traveling to Mariupolhis second surprise visit to Russian-occupied Ukraine this weekend, and his defiance soon after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest.
Putin flew to Mariupol, Ukraine's main industrial center on the Sea of Azov, by helicopter, the Kremlin said a statement on Sunday. In town, Putin drove from the airport through several neighborhoods, the Kremlin said, checking out the reconstruction work with the top Russian official in charge of infrastructure. The Kremlin also said that Putin spoke to some local residents.
Before the Russian invasion turned Mariupol into one of the fiercest urban battles of recent times, the city was home to over 400,000 people and the site of Europe's largest steel mill.
It was the second unannounced weekend trip by Putin to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the closest the Russian leader has come to the front since his February invasion. His Saturday trip to Crimea coincides with the ninth anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of the peninsula.
The two visits by the top official were also a defiant gesture from the Kremlin less than 48 hours after an international tribunal issued a warrant for his arrest. The warrant claims that Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the abductions and deportations of Ukrainian children that have occurred since Russia's invasion last year.
As well as Mariupol, Putin on Sunday also visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he met military commanders involved in the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
Since early winter, both sides have been locked in a fierce battle for ground in the east where the front line has barely moved, each army running out of ammunition and suffering heavy casualties. Putin has shown no sign of relaxing or heading to the negotiating table, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has vowed to take back all of Russia's captured territory, including Crimea.
So far, Ukraine has regained about half of that territory. And it has persuaded some of its NATO allies to stock up on their most prized weapons, including tanks, missiles, anti-missile systems and—just last week—fighter jets. As the war enters its second year, Putin is increasingly isolated, with a growing list of sanctions threatening to deprive Russia of its oil and gas sales.
On Monday, he will host Moscow's most important ally, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, giving Putin an opportunity to repeat a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the start of the war: that international support for Ukraine is limited to Western countries.
China has said a three-day visit by Mr Xi offers Beijing a chance to nudge Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a phone call with Mr Zelensky could follow. But the United States argues that China was not an honest broker and provided Russia with supplies it desperately needed for the war, accusations China denies and have helped push relations between the two powers to their lowest level in decades.
For months last year, Russia deployed thousands of troops to Mariupol, one of the most prosperous cities in pre-war Ukraine, and indiscriminately bombarded its apartment buildings. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainian military held out for weeks, eventually taking refuge in the city's steelworks. Finally in May, the Ukrainian troops withdrew, leaving the devastated city in Russian control.