Putin, facing war crimes arrest warrant, visits site of grisly Russian attacks in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin, newly slapped with an international warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges, paid a surprise weekend visit to the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol that Russia reduced to rubble last year.
The defiant visit was Putin’s first visit to Ukrainian territory illegally annexed by Russia in September.
Mariupol suffered gruesome deadly attacks early in the invasion last year when Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital and a theater being used by hundreds of residents as a shelter.
Putin traveled by helicopter to Mariupol, where he drove himself around the city and chatted with locals outside what appeared to be newly constructed apartments, according to Russian news reports.
The Russian president is wanted on war crimes charges after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant last Friday, a move which is largely symbolic but furthers his international isolation.
The ICC accused Putin of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
U.N. investigators say there is evidence hundreds of Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia, while Ukrainian government figures put that figure at more than 16,000 children.
Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the ICC and called the warrant “legally null and void.”
The chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was scathing in his remarks about Putin’s visit to Mariupol.
“The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene,” Mykhailo Podolyak 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,” he said.
Much of the port city was leve—led by Russian shelling.
When Russia fully captured Mariupol in May, some 100,000 people remained trapped without water, food and power. In a last stand that came to symbolize their country’s grit and resilience, a group of Ukrainian fighters managed to hold out in a steel factory in Mariupol for 83 days before surrendering.
Putin went to Mariupol late Saturday after traveling to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of its annexation from Ukraine, a Russian spokesman said Sunday.
In the latest fighting, at least three civilians were killed and 19 wounded by Russian shelling in the Donetsk region, where forces are battling for control of the city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces said its troops were holding the line near Bakhmut and that Russia’s plans to take over the city “are now foundering.”
He said Russian troops were “tactically unable to complete” the capture of Bakhmut, which has been the site of a lengthy Russian offensive.
A victory in Bakhmut is seen by Russia as a way to tighten its grip on the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — all illegally declared as annexed by Russia in September.
“Yes, there are very active battles, [the Russians continue to carry out several dozen attacks by inertia, but they suffer huge losses,” spokesman Serhii Cherevaty said on Ukrainian TV.
Ukrainian forces are “bleeding the enemy, breaking his fighting spirit,” he said.
Putin’s unexpected trip came ahead of this week’s planned visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby cautioned that any call for a ceasefire that might emerge from the meeting of Putin and Xi would be unacceptable to the U.S. because it would ratify Russian’s conquests.
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It also would allow Russia “time to refit, retrain, re-man and try to plan for a renewed offensive,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.”
A deal was extended over the weekend that allows grain shipments from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that face critical food shortages.
The United Nations and Turkey announced the extension without saying how long it would last. Russia has said it would agree to just 60 days.
A Ukrainian official tweeted on Saturday that the deal would be in effect for four months.
The renewal allows food shipments like wheat, barley and sunflower oil from Black Sea ports to hunger-plagued regions like Somalia, which receives more than 90% of its grain from Ukraine.
The Eastern African nation is facing severe drought and on the verge of famine, according to the International Rescue Committee.
With News Wire Services