Putin Marks Anniversary of Crimea Takeover with Visit to Occupied Ukraine

In this photo taken from video released by Russian Presidential Press Office on Sunday, March 19, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin at a newly built neighborhood during their visit to Mariupol in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, Ukraine. Putin has traveled to Crimea …
Russian Presidential Press Office via AP

Russian leader Vladimir Putin reportedly made his first visit to occupied Ukrainian territory over the weekend, stopping in Crimea on Saturday and the captive port city of Mariupol on Sunday.

His trip to Mariupol was carefully stage-managed to make it look like residents welcomed him as a liberator, but a brave woman reportedly still managed to heckle him within range of the microphones.

The Kyiv Independent, a staunchly pro-Ukrainian outlet, noted Putin’s appearance in Crimea, limited largely to a historical park in Sevastopol, was timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. 

The annexation was denounced as illegal by the U.N. General Assembly in May 2014 and has been described as such in numerous statements by organizations such as the Group of Seven nations (G7) in the years since then. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proclaimed over the summer that his goal is to “liberate Crimea” to revive “world law and order.”

From Crimea, Putin pushed on to Mariupol, a once-thriving port city heavily damaged and partly depopulated by a relentless siege before falling into Russian hands in May 2022, and then to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where a command post for the Ukraine invasion force is located.

Smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal during shelling, in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, May 7, 2022. (Alexei Alexandrov, File/AP)

The Kyiv Independent suspected one reason Putin made this trip was to flaunt the war crimes arrest warrant issued for him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday. The ICC is one of the organizations that denounced the annexation of Crimea, prompting Russia to withdraw from its foundational treaty in 2016.

Russian state television dutifully recorded Putin meeting with a gaggle of supportive Mariupol residents on Sunday, but then a woman shouted in the background: “It’s all lies! It’s all just for show!”

The UK Telegraph described a panicked reaction among Putin’s security team and media handlers when the heckler managed to interrupt his meet-and-greet with the supposedly happy residents of an apartment bloc that had to be reconstructed after Putin’s troops blew it to pieces:

One resident sobbed as she told Putin she now “owned a piece of paradise” after the leader asked if she liked her new apartment.

“Wow, we have only ever seen you on television,” said one man after shaking his hand. Putin’s bodyguards, wearing microphones, hovered around him at all times during the visit, occasionally whispering into the ear of a resident or guiding them on where to stand.

“We’ll have to get to know each other better,” the Russian president told the beaming residents.

Putin may have some supporters in Mariupol, but the staged rock-star welcome was a bit much given that his effort to capture the city was one of the bloodiest campaigns in a very bloody war and featured the Russians accused of bombing a maternity ward and a children’s shelter, acts that were denounced as war crimes by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

“The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” jeered Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak after Putin’s visit. “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.”

Podolyak said Putin’s visit showed “cynicism and a lack of remorse.”

Russia’s state-run Tass news service had a far more upbeat report on Putin’s trip to Mariupol, labeling it a “working visit” and stressing that Putin drove his own vehicle around town, “making stops at several locations.”

“The president talked to residents of the Nevsky district and visited an apartment upon an invitation from a family living there,” Tass wrote.

Tass said Putin’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin traveled with Putin to prepare a report on “the construction of new residential districts, social and educational facilities, utility infrastructure and medical centers.”

Khusnullin told state media during the trip that Mariupol will never leave Moscow’s control. He claimed residents of the bombed-out city have “started actively returning,” drawn by the fabulous job Russian crews are doing of reconstructing the city. About three-quarters of the 450,000 residents fled during the siege as water and power systems failed.

Another Tass report on Sunday quoted the Kremlin saying Putin “gave instructions” to officials in Mariupol on how to handle “issues related to pay pauses, registration of the Russian citizenship, and Russian passports.” A third piece quoted Putin promising to “extend” the posh new housing developments that one resident supposedly described as “a small corner of paradise.”

The Moscow Times noted Zelensky did not directly reference Putin’s trip to Mariupol in his weekly address on Sunday night, but he did promise that “the evil state will be held accountable for every act of terror against Ukrainians” and applauded the ICC for issuing an arrest warrant against Putin.

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