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Putin Visits Crimea, Mariupol on Annexation Anniversary

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 3/19/2023 Bloomberg News

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President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to occupied Mariupol, the Ukrainian city largely laid to waste by Russia last year, following a stop in Crimea on Saturday, state media reported.

It was Putin’s first visit to one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia claimed in September to have annexed as part of its invasion launched in February 2022. The visit came a day after the Russian leader was issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for alleged “war crimes.” 

The Kremlin said Sunday that Putin had been on a “working trip” to the region. Putin toured Mariupol by car after arriving by helicopter, and also visited a restored orchestral hall, RIA Novosti reported.  

The Russian leader’s visit to Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in southern Donetsk province, almost a year to the day after a Kremlin strike on a drama theater there allegedly killed hundreds of civilians taking shelter. 

Amnesty International, in an investigation published in June, labeled the strike “a clear war crime” by Russian forces, saying the theater “was clearly recognizable as a civilian object, perhaps more so than any other location in the city.” 

Read more: Xi’s Embrace of Putin Dents His Chances as Peacemaker on Ukraine 

Putin’s earlier stop in Crimea was termed a “reunification” event, nine years after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. 

Putin had been expected to take part in the day’s activities via video link, according to his spokesman, but was shown on state TV strolling in Sevastopol, Crimea’s biggest city, clad in blue jeans and a cardigan. 

The president later flew into Mariupol, Tass reported on Sunday, where he reviewed reconstruction and restoration work in a city that suffered widespread damage during a months-long siege by Russian forces. 

Ukraine estimates about 20,000 civilians were killed in the city, including those in the theater bombing. Mariupol had a pre-war population of about 450,000. 

Read more: Putin Faces War-Crime Warrant Issued by International Court 

While in Crimea, Putin attended the opening of a children’s art school and visited a youth center, according to Interfax. 

The venues seemed carefully chosen after the ICC cited Putin for war crimes related to the alleged abduction of children from Ukraine. The warrant, a mostly symbolic move since Russia is not a signatory to the court, was shrugged off by the Kremlin. The US is also not a signatory to the Hague-based body. 

Putin was shown on state TV driving an SUV in Sevastopol. Mikhail Razvozhaev, the Kremlin-installed governor of Sevastopol, said on Telegram that the Russian leader also inspected an archaeological park devoted to the ancient city of Tauric Chersonese.

Putin’s previous full-scale visit to the Crimean peninsula was in 2020. 

Read more: Mariupol Steel Plant’s ‘Dead Men’ Defenders Call for Rescue Plan

In December, though, Putin drove a Mercedes across the Kerch Strait bridge, repaired and reopened after being seriously damaged by an explosion and fire in October. 

The bridge, which links Crimea to the Krasnodar region on Russia’s mainland, was constructed after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and opened to road traffic in 2018. 

The Kremlin blamed a Ukrainian act of “terrorism” for the incident, while Ukrainian officials never claimed responsibility. Intensified Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure facilities started within days of the incident and have continued since then. 

--With assistance from Ros Krasny.

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