Russian president Vladimir Putin became the latest world leader to visit Ukraine on Saturday, his first trip outside of Russia since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war-crime charges. It was also his first known trip to territory Russia has seized during its full-scale war in Ukraine.
After celebrating the ninth anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Sevastopol earlier Saturday, Putin visited the ruins of Mariupol, the once-bustling seaside Ukrainian city Russian forces laid siege to for months last spring while attempting to defeat a small group of overmatched Ukrainian fighters.
As many as 90 percent of Mariupol’s residential buildings were damaged or destroyed in the siege, the United Nations estimated last year, and the population of the port city is now as little as a quarter of what it was before the war. Mariupol’s exiled mayor believes more than 20,000 people were killed amid the fighting, but it’s still impossible to confirm the full extent of the death, destruction, and suffering there. Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly vowed to rebuild the occupied city — Mariupol’s Kremlin-backed mayor told Russian state media last year that it would be reborn as “a wonderful Russian resort city” — but beyond the propaganda, there has been little verifiable proof that is happening.
“At least the smell of corpses is gone,” a local schoolteacher told The Wall Street Journal in September, referencing the many bodies buried in shallow graves or collapsed buildings during the siege. Russia has also worked to build gratitude and affinity for Russia amongst the city’s remaining residents, including the use of what The Guardian described as “Orwellian propaganda news vans” promoting Mariupol’s Russian ties.
Russia announced Sunday that during his brief visit, Putin got a firsthand look at the coastline, a rebuilt theater, and other “memorable places.” Video footage aired Sunday in Russia showed Putin driving himself around a few neighborhoods, conversing with survivors, and touring a newly constructed residential tower, which a woman in one video called “a little island of paradise.”
On Friday, the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued arrest warrants for Putin and the leader of a Russian orphan organization on war-crimes charges, alleging they were responsible for the “unlawful deportation” of children from Ukraine. Neither Russia nor the U.S. recognizes the authority of the ICC, and Putin has not responded to the charges. It’s very unlikely he’ll ever face trial at the ICC, but it was symbolically the first time the court has ever indicted a leader of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and the charges theoretically limit the number of countries where Putin can now travel — if he fears the warrant will be served by ICC member states. Germany’s top prosecutor has already announced that German authorities would arrest Putin if he set foot in the country.