Kyiv officials described Vladimir Putin as a “criminal” returning to a “crime scene” after the Russian president visited Mariupol in the second of two appearances in Ukraine after a warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court.
State media said Mr Putin drove around the occupied port city in a car on Saturday, stopping in several districts to speak with locals in what appears to be an attempt by the president to project an image of control after he was indicted on war crimes charges. It is the first time he has visited the city.
Mariupol, in Ukraine’s south, was captured by Russia 10 months ago after an indiscriminate bombing campaign by Kremlin troops at the outset of Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year.
Ukraine has said 20,000 people have been killed in the city, which has seen 90 per cent of its buildings damaged. Some 350,000 Mariupol’s 500,000 residents were forced to flee in the face of the bloody assault.
The city became a worldwide symbol of resistance after outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control in May.
Vadym Boychenko, Mariupol’s exiled mayor, said Mr Putin was a “criminal” who had returned to the “scene of the crime”. Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, also criticised Mr Putin’s trip.
“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” he said. “While the countries of the civilized world are announcing the arrest of the ‘war director’ in the event of crossing the border, the organizer of the murders of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and mass graves.”
Pictures showed the president’s drive in the car took place under the cover of darkness. He also met those leading his military operation there.
Mr Putin arrived in Mariupol late on Saturday after visiting Crimea, southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine. Russian TV showed him at a children’s centre in what was an unannounced visit.
The visits come after the ICC on Friday issued a warrant for Mr Putin’s arrest, accusing him of war crimes for transporting hundreds of Ukrainian children from orphanages in the country to Russia.
The court’s 123 member states could now detain Mr Putin and hand him over for trial if he sets foot on their territory.
He becomes only the third serving president in history to be issued a warrant, after Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
It is one of the most ambitious cases that the ICC has undertaken, and the symbolism of the first warrant issued over Russia’s invasion is marked by going right to the top of the Kremlin.
Mr Zelensky called it a “historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin”.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia does not recognise the ICC and considers its decisions “legally void”. Ex-president Dmitry Medvedev described the warrants as “toilet paper”. The US also does not recognise the court but President Joe Biden described the move as “justified”.
Mr Putin has not personally commented on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of him facing trial anytime soon.
The surprise trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday.
Mr Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline, Russian news reports said.
The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Mr Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.
Following his trip, Mr Putin met Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city some 180 kilometres (about 112 miles) further east, and spoke with General Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian military operations in Ukraine.
Mr Peskov said the trip had been unannounced, and that the Russian president intended to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its ordinary mode of operation”.
Speaking to the state RIA-Novosti agency, deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin made it clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year.
“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Khusnullin told RIA.