Defiant Putin Visits Mariupol, Second Stop in Tour of Occupied Ukraine

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia traveled to Mariupolhis second surprise visit to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine this weekend, and a defiant gesture shortly after an international court issued an arrest warrant for him.

Putin flew to Mariupol, a major Ukrainian industrial center on the Azov Sea, by helicopter, the Kremlin said in a declaration on Sunday. In the city, Putin drove from the airport through several neighborhoods, the Kremlin said, reviewing the reconstruction work with a senior Russian official responsible for infrastructure. The Kremlin also said that Putin spoke with some local residents.

Before the Russian invasion turned Mariupol into one of the fiercest urban battles in recent memory, the city was home to more than 400,000 people and the site of Europe’s largest steel plant.

It was Putin’s second unannounced trip of the weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the closest the Russian leader has come to the front since the invasion last February. His Saturday trip to Crimea was timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula.

The two high-profile visits were also defiant gestures by the Kremlin less than 48 hours after an international court issued an arrest warrant for him. The order claims that Putin had individual criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children that has taken place since the invasion of Russia last year.

In addition to Mariupol, Putin also visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Sunday, where he met top military commanders involved in the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

Since the beginning of winter, both sides have been locked in a bitter battle for land in the east, where the front line has barely budged, each army is running low on ammunition and experiencing mounting casualties. Putin has shown no sign of relaxing or heading to the negotiating table, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to take back all the territory Russia seized, including Crimea.

So far, Ukraine has regained about half of that territory. And it has persuaded several of its NATO allies to provide their most valuable weapons, including tanks, missiles, anti-missile systems and, just last week, fighter jets. As the war enters its second year, Putin finds himself even more isolated, with a growing list of sanctions threatening to cut Russia’s revenue from the sale of its oil and gas.

On Monday, he will host Moscow’s most important ally, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, giving Putin a chance to reiterate a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the start of the war: that international support for Ukraine should be limited to western countries.

China has said that Mr Xi’s three-day visit offers Beijing a chance to push Mr Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a call with Mr Zelensky might follow. But the United States has argued that China is not an honest broker and is providing Russia with much-needed war supplies, accusations that China has denied and that have helped push relations between the two powers to the lowest level in decades.

For months last year, Russia sent thousands of troops into Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s most prosperous pre-war cities, indiscriminately shelling its apartment buildings. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainian military held out for weeks, eventually taking refuge in the city’s steel mill. Finally, in May, the Ukrainian forces withdrew, leaving the devastated city under Russian control.