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Putin makes a surprise visit to Mariupol and tours an occupied city destroyed by war

In this photo taken from video released by the Russian TV pool on Sunday, March 19, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with local residents during a surprise visit to Mariupol.
In this photo taken from video released by the Russian TV pool on Sunday, March 19, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with local residents during a surprise visit to Mariupol.

Updated March 19, 2023 at 11:47 AM ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced trip to the occupied city of Mariupol on Saturday, touring parts of the Ukrainian city that is now rebuilding after fierce attacks by Russian forces last year.

It has been roughly 1o months since Russian forces took control of Mariupol in one of the key battles in the war in Ukraine, which has now been dragging on for more than a year.

Mariupol came under siege by the Russian military in February of last year, but local fighters were able to hold off the larger and better-armed forces for several months before losing control of the city in May, making Mariupol a symbol for Ukraine's underdog spirit in the conflict.

The city saw intense violence during the Russian siege, including Russia's bombing of a theater that residents were using as a shelter from the fighting. The human rights group Amnesty International would later call the theater bombinga war crime.

Mariupol is also home to the Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians hid for weeks from Russian forces while refusing to surrender in a stand against the invading military that became known across the world.

On Sunday, the Russian state news agency Tass reported that Putin flew into Mariupol via helicopter before being driven and walking around the city. It was Putin's first-ever visit to the Donbas region, which the Russian president illegally annexed in September.

"This trip seemed like a staged, managed event for Putin to highlight Russian efforts to rebuild Mariupol, which of course was destroyed by Russian forces in the battle for control of the city last year," NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes said on Weekend Edition Sunday.

"It also seemed a little bit of a response to President Biden's trip to Kyiv a month ago, given that this was Putin's first trip to these newly occupied and, in theory, newly annexed territories since the start of the war," Maynes added.

Biden, in a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital in February, met with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy and reaffirmed the U.S. government's support for Ukraine.

According to Tass, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin told Putin that residents who fled Mariupol due to fighting there last year have been returning to the city.

One day earlier, Putin traveled to the nearby region of Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

Putin's visit to Mariupol followed the International Criminal Court's decision on Friday to issue an arrest warrant for him and Russia's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, over the alleged unlawful deportation of children from occupied territories in Ukraine to Russia.

Officials in Moscow dismissed the charges and noted that Russia — like the U.S. — is not a party to the International Criminal Court.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]