Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies reported Sunday, his first trip to the Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September. Earlier, on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine, the AP reports. 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's forces finally took control of it in May.
The visits, during which he was shown chatting with local 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 an international 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. 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.
Russian authorities say Mariupol now has a population of around 300,000, the BBC reports. 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. A year ago, weeks after the Russian invasion, around 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.
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