Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Mariupol “absolutely spontaneous,” stating that Putin made the decision to meet residents in one of the apartments during his visit. It is unclear when the visit took place, although on Saturday Putin marked the ninth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. Reports suggest that Putin drove himself around Mariupol, with Peskov stating that he “completely adhered to all the traffic rules.” This marks his first trip to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Despite the Kremlin’s statement that the visit was spontaneous, Ukrainian officials have criticized it as a calculated move made to showcase Putin’s strength. Analysts have suggested that the visit can be seen as part of Putin’s strategy to show that he is in control and unwavering in his pursuit of Russian interests. The visit comes shortly after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova, in relation to an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.
Mariupol is a city that has been under Russian occupation since 2014, and the Kremlin’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine has been a point of contention between Russia and the West. Putin’s drive around Mariupol was viewed by Ukrainian officials as akin to a criminal returning to the crime scene “under the cover of night,” using darkness to conceal the war’s worst atrocities. The visit is likely to further stoke tensions between the two nations and may lead to increased scrutiny of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Despite the vocal criticisms from Ukrainian officials, Putin’s visit to Mariupol and Rostov-on-Don appears to be part of a larger charm offensive aimed at portraying him as a strong and decisive leader. While it remains to be seen whether this will lead to any concrete changes in Russia’s relationship with Ukraine and the West, the visit is likely to be viewed as a significant moment in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.