Russian President Vladimir Putin has made an unannounced visit to Mariupol, a city in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation, marking his first visit to the region since the start of the war in 2022. The move is seen as provocative, given its symbolism as a stronghold of Ukrainian resistance that was subject to Moscow’s most notorious strikes, including an attack on a maternity ward, which the OSCE deemed a war crime. Mariupol fell to the Russians last May after Moscow failed to seize Kyiv. Putin also visited Crimea over the weekend to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, days after an ICC arrest warrant was issued against him for the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Although the Kremlin has yet to comment on the ICC arrest warrant, Germany has stated that Putin will be arrested if he enters its territory, and the warrant is adding pressure to the Russian leader domestically. Putin’s absence from the front lines during the ongoing war in Ukraine has caused criticism within Russia, with his popularity already plummeting over rising inflation, economic losses, and the pandemic. In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s trips to the battlefield are being praised for boosting morale among Kyiv’s troops.
Putin’s visit included an examination of Mariupol’s coastline, a yacht club, and a theatre building, as well as a visit to a family in a new residential neighbourhood that has been recently built by the Russian military. The Kremlin reported that residents have been “actively” returning to the city, and that the reconstruction of the downtown is expected to be finished by the end of the year. There was no immediate reaction from Kyiv.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilised the region, with tensions in the region driven by gas supplies, military borders, sovereignty over Crimea, and Moscow’s backing of separatists in the Donbas region. The fighting has left around 14,000 dead since the war began in 2014, with Moscow’s continuing aggression indicating that fighting may escalate further. While Ukraine has stated that the war is not over and that its claim to the peninsula remains, much of Europe has become increasingly passive in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Obama administration provided limited financial assistance, and President Trump paused the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine before reversing the decision under extreme pressure from Congress. Meanwhile, weapons, equipment, and frontline experiences have been shared between Ukrainian troops and NATO states in a largely ad hoc manner.