- The Washington Times
Sunday, March 19, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin late Saturday evening made his first visit to a Ukrainian city captured in Russia‘s nearly 13-month-old invasion of its neighbor, in a show of defiance just a day after an international tribunal called for his arrest for war crimes.

Russian news reports said that Mr. Putin followed up a stop in Crimea, the peninsula he forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014, with a surprise visit to Mariupol, an industrial center and port on the country’s Black Sea coastline that was the site of one of the war’s biggest battles.

Russian forces finally took control of the city after a long siege in May 2022 as outnumbered Ukrainian defenders held out in the city’s massive Azovstal steelworks complex for more than three months.

The dogged defense provided a massive morale boost for Ukrainian forces. Commanders in Kyiv said the time and resources Russia had to devote to capturing the city gave them breathing space to organize a defense of other regions.

Mariupol was also the site of some of the most horrific Russian strikes on civilian targets during the war, when a theater packed with children and a maternity ward were hit by Russian missiles, leading to hundreds of deaths last spring.

Russian news accounts said Mr. Putin drove his own car through the occupied city late Saturday evening, meeting with residents and visiting an art school and youth center.

In carefully staged footage running on Russian television, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin was shown briefing Mr. Putin and claiming that city services and port operations are returning to normal under Russian control.

“People have started actively returning, with growth of the population registered,” Mr. Khusnullin said at one point, according to the official Tass news service.

Mr. Putin, who has rarely ventured outside Russia since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, traveled Sunday to Russia‘s military command center in Rostov-on-Don. Mr. Putin was briefed by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the latest commander of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation,” and the general’s aides.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a number of trips to the front lines, and Ukrainians have repeatedly taunted the Russian leader for not making a trip himself.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy, took to Twitter on Sunday to call Mr. Putin “a murderer of thousands” who had come to admire the graves in Mariupol of those he killed.

“The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” he added.

The exiled Ukrainian city council for Mariupol also denounced the Russian leader’s visit to their city.

“The international criminal Putin visited occupied Mariupol,” the council said on its Telegram social media account. ” He watched the ‘rebuilding of the city’ … at night, probably in order not to see the city, killed by his ‘liberation,’ in the light of day.”

The visit is part of a momentous week for the 70-year-old Russian leader, anxious to retain popular support for an invasion that so far has achieved almost none of its major objectives.

On Friday, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges, saying he oversaw the forcible abduction of thousands of children from Ukraine to sites inside Russia.

The indictment has led to speculation that Mr. Putin would cut back even more on forays outside Russia‘s borders: German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann told the Bilt am Sonntag newspaper Sunday that Mr. Putin would be subject to arrest because of the ICC warrant if he traveled to Berlin.

“Germany will be obliged to arrest President Putin if he enters German territory and hand him over to the ICC,” Mr. Buschmann said.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who has maintained relations with Moscow even as the war grinds on, told reporters in Belgrade on Sunday that the ICC indictment would have “bad political consequences” for any potential peace settlement.

“My question is, Now that you have accused him of the biggest war crimes, who are you going to talk to?” Mr. Vucic said.

Mr. Putin is scheduled to return to the Kremlin on Monday for a high-stakes, three-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first trip by the Chinese leader to Russia since the Ukraine war began in February 2022.

Mr. Xi, who reportedly will talk by phone with Mr. Zelenskyy after his visit, recently floated a 12-point peace plan for the war that critics say would lock in many of Mr. Putin‘s territorial gains from the invasion.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration would watch the Xi-Putin summit carefully, but had relatively low expectations given the content of the current Chinese proposal.

A cease-fire along the lines Beijing is proposing is “just going to be unacceptable because all that’s going to do is ratify Russian’s conquest to date,” Mr. Kirby told “Fox News Sunday.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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