Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, a City Razed by Russian Forces

The trip was the Russian leader’s first to territory his forces captured since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and came shortly after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes.

Video player loading
Russian state media showed the president driving into Mariupol, Ukraine, and meeting with locals who moved into new apartments after intense fighting destroyed the city. The visit marks his closest trip to the front lines.CreditCredit...Russian Presidential Press Office

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made his first trip to territory captured by his forces since they invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, traveling late on 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 Mr. Putin’s resolve to pursue his defeat of Ukraine ahead of 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 Zelensky of Ukraine said on Sunday that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Putin touring sites in darkness.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, 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 Mr. 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.

ImageUnder a hazy sky, a fiery explosion is seen on the right side of a multistory building that already bears signs of damage.
An explosion after a Russian Army tank fired on an apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine, last March.Credit...Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

The visit to Mariupol by Mr. Putin — who now 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 Mr. Putin has come to the front lines since the start of the full-scale invasion last February. 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.

Mr. Zelensky 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.

Mr. 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 far-right connections allowed Mr. Putin to claim that Russia was invading to “denazify” the country.

Mr. 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 Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia since the invasion.

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

Ukrainian families arriving in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, after fleeing from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol last April.Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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

As Russia continues to struggle on the battlefield, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm focused on Russia, said Mr. Putin’s comments and his surprise visit constituted a message to the Russian pro-invasion hawks. The trip, she said, showed that Mr. Putin “morally supports Russian warriors,” while the interview was intended to fend off any criticism that might make him look “naïve, shortsighted, and weak.”

On Monday, Mr. Putin will host Moscow’s most important ally, Mr. Xi, giving the Russian leader an opportunity to reiterate a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the war’s start: that international support for Ukraine is limited to Western countries.

China has said the three-day visit by Mr. Xi offers Beijing an opportunity to push Mr. Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a call with Mr. Zelensky could follow. But the United States has warned that China is considering whether to provide Russia with weapons for the war as part of a deepening relationship between the two countries. Beijing has rejected the claim.

There was no immediate comment about Mr. Putin’s visit to Mariupol from Mr. Zelensky, who has vowed to recapture all of the territory lost to Russia, including Crimea. Ukraine’s armed forces are expected to launch an offensive this spring, which some Ukrainian officials have said could involve trying to cut off Crimea from the land that Russia holds in Donbas by pushing south toward the city of Melitopol.

Andrii Biedniakov, 35, a television presenter from Mariupol who left the city on a work trip just days before the invasion, said he was “furious” that Mr. Putin had visited “the city he ruined.”

It was telling that Mr. Putin visited at night, Mr. Biedniakov said, and he noted television footage of small groups of people greeting the Russian president. “If there are thousands of people who welcome Russia,” he said, “why did they only show seven of them?”

Marc Santora contributed reporting.