Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently smacked of an international arrest warrant on war crimes charges, paid a surprise weekend visit to the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol that Russia reduced to rubble last year.
The defiant visit was Putin’s first visit to the Ukrainian territory illegally annexed by Russia in September.
Mariupol suffered horrific, deadly attacks early in the invasion last year when Russian forces shelled a maternity hospital and a theater that hundreds of residents were using as a shelter.
Putin flew by helicopter to Mariupol, where he toured the city and chatted with locals outside what appeared to be newly built apartments, according to Russian news reports.
The Russian president is wanted on war crimes charges after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant last Friday, a move that is largely symbolic but furthers his international isolation.
The ICC accused Putin of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
UN investigators say there is evidence that hundreds of Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia, while Ukrainian government figures put that figure at more than 16,000 children.
Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the ICC, calling the order “legally null and void.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff was scathing in his comments about Putin’s visit to Mariupol.
“The criminal is always attracted to the crime scene,” said Mykhailo Podolyak.
“While the countries of the civilized world announce the arrest of the ‘war director’ in case of crossing the border, the organizer of the murders of thousands of families in Mariupol came to admire the ruins of the city and the mass graves,” he said. saying.
Much of the port city was leveled by Russian bombing.
When Russia completely captured Mariupol in May, some 100,000 people were trapped without water, food or electricity. In a last stand that came to symbolize their country’s courage and resilience, a group of Ukrainian fighters managed to hold out in a Mariupol steel factory for 83 days before surrendering.
Putin went to Mariupol on Saturday night after traveling to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of its annexation of Ukraine, a Russian spokesman said on Sunday.
In the latest clashes, at least three civilians have been killed and 19 wounded by Russian shelling in the Donetsk region, where forces are fighting for control of the town of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said.
A spokesman for the eastern Ukrainian forces said their troops were holding the line near Bakhmut and that Russia’s plans to seize the city “are now falling apart.”
He said Russian troops were “tactically unable to complete” the capture of Bakhmut, which has been the site of a long Russian offensive.
Russia views a victory at Bakhmut as a way to tighten its grip on the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, all illegally declared annexed by Russia in September.
“Yes, there are very active battles (the Russians continue to carry out several dozen inertial attacks, but suffer huge losses,” spokesman Serhii Cherevaty said on Ukrainian television.
Ukrainian forces are “bleeding the enemy dry, breaking their fighting spirit,” he said.
Putin’s unexpected trip came ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Moscow this week.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned that any calls for a ceasefire that might arise from the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable to the United States because it would ratify Russian conquests.
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It would also give Russia “time to refit, retrain, reorganize and try to plan for a renewed offensive,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.”
An agreement allowing grain shipments from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia facing critical food shortages was extended over the weekend.
The United Nations and Turkey announced the extension without saying how long it would last. Russia has said it would accept only 60 days.
A Ukrainian official tweeted on Saturday that the agreement would be in place for four months.
The renewal allows shipments of food such as wheat, barley and sunflower oil from Black Sea ports to famine-stricken regions such as Somalia, which receives more than 90% of its grain from Ukraine.
The East African nation is facing a severe drought and the brink of famine, according to the International Rescue Committee.
with cable news services