Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol, state media reported on Sunday.
The trip comes after an arrest warrant against Putin was issued by the International Criminal Court Russia’s alleged deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children during the conflict.
Russia besieged Mariupol at the start of its offensive last year, which destroyed the Azovstal steel plant, the last line of defense of Ukrainian troops in the city.
According to the state news agency TASS, Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter on Saturday and toured the city, sometimes driving a car.
He visited several locations and talked to residents, getting a report on the rebuilding of the city.
Putin’s stop in Mariupol comes after his surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.
Russian state television showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Razvozhayev said on the Telegram messaging app that Putin was expected to participate in the opening of a children’s art school via video link.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that was not recognized by Kiev and the international community.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he intended to take back Crimea, though Moscow has refused to include it in potential peace talks.
‘Invalid’ ICC warrant
Putin’s visit came after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him on Friday for the “deportation” of Ukrainian children.
Kiev says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022, many of them have been placed in institutions and foster homes.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP Putin is now liable for arrest if he sets foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has not publicly commented on the order, but the Kremlin has dismissed its validity as “invalid” since Russia did not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.
The decision by the court in The Hague came ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on Monday to sign accords touted as the start of a new era of ties.
China, a key Russian ally, has been trying to position itself as a neutral side in the conflict in Ukraine, urging Moscow and Kiev to open negotiations.
But Western leaders have repeatedly criticized Beijing for not condemning Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.
Grain deal extended
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides have agreed to extend a deal that will allow Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blockaded by Russian warships.
But there was disagreement over the terms.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said the deal had been extended for 120 days, but a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow had agreed to a 60-day extension.
The deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 had allowed the safe passage of exports and had already been extended by 120 days in November.
Fighting is now concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, particularly in the city of Bakhmut.
Russian strikes hit the nearby city of Kramatorsk on Saturday, killing two people and injuring 10, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, who accused Moscow of using cluster bombs in the attack.
AFP journalists in Kramatorsk heard about 10 explosions go off almost simultaneously just before 4 p.m. local time (2 p.m. GMT) and saw smoke rise over a park in the southern part of the city.
A woman died on the spot of her injuries, they saw.