Marin Independent Journal

Putin visits Ukrainian city razed by Russians

- By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Ivan Nechepuren­ko and Andrés R. Martínez

President Vladimir Putin of Russia made his first trip to territory captured by his forces since they invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, traveling late Saturday to the ravaged city of Mariupol, where Russia staged some of its most brutal attacks of the war.

The visit appeared to be both a gesture of defiance — it came just a day after an internatio­nal court issued a warrant for the Russian leader's arrest for war crimes — and a demonstrat­ion of Putin's resolve to pursue his defeat of Ukraine before the arrival in Moscow of President Xi Jinping of China, a crucial economic partner.

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian agony when Russian forces began laying waste to it with artillery soon after its forces crossed the border. It grew into a beacon of Ukrainian resistance when the city's last defenders endured a grueling siege at a steel plant.

An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said Sunday that Putin's visit made clear his lack of remorse. “The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” the adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, wrote on Twitter.

The Kremlin said that Putin

had flown by helicopter to the airport in Mariupol and toured several neighborho­ods, spoken with residents and inspected reconstruc­tion sites. Russia's bombardmen­t reduced much of the city to rubble, and some rebuilding is now underway. Images released by Russian television showed Putin touring sites in darkness.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokespers­on, described the visit as a “full-scale working trip” and stressed that many aspects of it were not planned. There was “no

motorcade as such,” he said, adding that Putin had driven himself through the city.

The battle for Mariupol, a port city with a prewar population of about 400,000, was marked by wanton destructio­n by Russian forces, who bombed a maternity hospital and at times opened fire on apartment buildings with tanks from close range. It also featured the deadliest single assault on civilians during the war, when Russian forces bombed a theater in which residents had taken shelter.

The United Nations said

that at least 1,300 died in the battle for the city but that the true toll was likely to have been thousands higher.

The visit to Mariupol by Putin — who stands accused by the Internatio­nal Criminal Court of presiding over the abduction of Ukrainian children — was his second unannounce­d trip over the weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. On Saturday, he went to Crimea in a visit marking the ninth anniversar­y of the peninsula's illegal annexation by Russia.

Mariupol was the closest

Putin has come to the front lines since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. The city is about 50 miles southeast of the town of Vuhledar, where Russian forces sustained heavy losses just weeks ago and where fierce fighting is still taking place.

Zelenskyy has made several visits to the front line, including a visit to Bakhmut in December. The embattled city in Donetsk province, which is part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, has been also held up as a symbol of national resistance.

Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine was carrying out a “genocide” in Donbas to help justify his decision to launch the full-scale invasion. Mariupol, which is in Donbas, was home to much of Ukraine's Azov Battalion, a group whose onetime farright connection­s allowed Putin to claim that Russia was invading to “denazify” the country.

Putin has set the full capture of Donbas, where Russia has held substantia­l territory since 2014, as the main objective of a military offensive that began this year. In October, Moscow illegally annexed four of Ukraine's provinces, including Donetsk, in a move that was widely condemned.

The warrant issued by the Internatio­nal Criminal Court on Friday alleges that Putin bears individual criminal responsibi­lity for the deportatio­n of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia since the invasion.

Ukrainian authoritie­s have said that many abducted children were from Mariupol — and Putin's weekend trip to Crimea notably featured a visit to a children's center.

Mikhail Vinogradov, a political scientist who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, a think tank, said Putin's visit to Mariupol was likely a response to “the ICC warrant and to the criticism that he doesn't visit combat zones.”

As Russia continues to struggle on the battlefiel­d, Putin has also faced criticism from pro-invasion hawks who have begun to argue that timing of the full-scale invasion was wrong. It should have started in 2014, when Ukraine was a less potent enemy, they say.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on Russian state television with a Kremlin-friendly reporter, Putin said such a move had not been possible because Russia needed more time to counter expected sanctions and insulate its financial system. “It is difficult to say what would happen in 2014,” he said in the interview, which was recorded last week.

 ?? EVGENIY MALOLETKA — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A woman walks past debris in the aftermath of Russian shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022.
EVGENIY MALOLETKA — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A woman walks past debris in the aftermath of Russian shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022.

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