Russian President Putin visits the occupied city of Mariupol

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies reported on Sunday, his first trip to Ukrainian territory, which Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula. Mariupol became a global symbol of defiance after Ukrainian troops, armed with overwhelming and unmanned weapons, held out at a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May.

The visits, during which he chatted with local residents in Mariupol and visited an art school and children’s center in Crimea, were a display of defiance by the Russian leader, two days after a court issued a war crimes arrest warrant. Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which has deepened his international isolation, although he is unlikely to face trial any time soon.

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

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” the concert hall and the seafront, Russian news reports said, without specifying when the visit took place. They said Putin also met with local residents in the city’s Nevsky district.

Speaking to the state-run RIA agency on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made it clear that Russia would remain in Mariupol. He said the government hopes to complete the reconstruction of the devastated inner city by the end of the year.

‚ÄúPeople have started coming back. When they saw that reconstruction was underway, people actively returned,” Khusnulin told RIA.

When Moscow completely conquered the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained from a pre-war population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left row upon row of buildings destroyed or hollowed out.

Mariupol’s plight was first illustrated by a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people were reportedly killed in a bombing of a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested the true death toll could be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal Steel Works east of Mariupol before surrendering. Their tenacious defenses tied down Russian forces and became a symbol of Ukrainian obstinacy in the face of Moscow aggression.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move most of the world denounced as illegal, and last September began officially claiming four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, following referendums involving Kyiv and the called the west a sham.

The Associated Press


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