Never before has Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the region with which he has justified the largest invasion unleashed in Europe since World War II. With his visit this Sunday to the city of Mariupol, the president has set foot in Donbas for the first time since his paramilitaries set fire to that powder keg in eastern Ukraine in 2014. A fleeting trip in which he has traveled one of the symbolic scenes of this tragedy. “Nice and comfortable”, was his impression when contemplating the restoration works of the Philharmonic headquarters, one of the cultural emblems of the Ukrainian city and that Russia wants to restore.
Mariupol represents Putin’s most strategic and prized victory in the current war, despite the thousands killed and the great destruction his conquest left behind. “The international criminal Putin has visited the occupied city of Mariupol,” the municipal authorities have denounced on the Telegram social network, referring to the order issued this week by the International Criminal Court. They add that the presence of the Russian president has taken place at night so as not to “have to see the dead city in daylight due to its release”, reports Agence France Presse.
Wrapped in a voluminous coat that hid any protection he could wear, and surrounded by a huge retinue of bodyguards, Putin has walked through Mariupol at dawn, when the night was still dark. Until now, the Russian leader had avoided visiting areas close to the front and the closest he had come to the war had been another express visit, on December 5, to the recovery works on the Crimean bridge after an explosion that damaged it. So far, Putin’s role on the ground has been much lower profile than that of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion 13 months ago, has not stopped visiting the enclaves hardest hit by the conflict.
The surrender of the last Ukrainian troops stationed in the Azovstal factory in mid-May 2022 ended up decanting the fall of Mariupol on the Russian side. Gone were at least 22,000 dead civilians, according to estimates made by the mayor, Vadim Boichenko, interviewed by EL PAÍS earlier this month. The alderman, who has been in exile since the first days of the invasion, laments the ease with which the Kremlin troops surrounded and besieged the city. “The butcher, if it really is him, has come to the place of his crimes,” Anton Gerashenko, adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, has published on Telegram.
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“We have to start getting to know each other better,” Putin told an alleged group of residents of the city in one of the videos broadcast by Russian state media. “We had only seen you on television,” one of them replied. The Russian president proclaimed the annexation of the Donetsk region and three other Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, on September 30 last year, but had never visited the area, controlled indirectly by Moscow through the puppet governments of the self-proclaimed breakaway republics.
During Putin’s conversation with the neighbors, another one of them showed him the reality of the war. “My birthday is 15 days after yours. I am also 70 years old, but I am left with nothing, ”he snapped at the Russian head of state, who only offered silence in response, according to the recording broadcast on television.
Departure to the Black Sea
The president arrived in Mariupol a day after visiting the Sevastopol naval enclave, in the Crimea illegally annexed since 2014. One of the messages that the Kremlin wanted to send with his visit is that it keeps that territory firmly under control. kyiv publicly assures that it is preparing to recover both Mariupol, the land bridge between Russia and Crimea, and the Black Sea peninsula itself.
Likewise, Putin’s official trip precedes the expected visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow. Both leaders will meet in person next Tuesday for the first time since Beijing proclaimed its 12-point peace plan, which includes returning all occupied territories to Ukraine.
According to the Russian presidency, Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and toured several of its streets behind the wheel of a car. The Russian leader visited a district of the city accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Jusnullin, who briefed him “on the progress of construction and restoration work in and around the city.” Despite the devastation that the city has suffered from the fighting, the images released by the Kremlin showed only the newly built buildings in the city.
Putin, who is facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes issued this week, staged a debate with Jusnullin in which they accused Ukrainian forces of committing atrocities. “Normal people don’t do that,” said the Russian head of state. The president then continued his tour in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he met with the chief of the General Staff and sole commander of the Russian armed forces in the invasion of Ukraine, Valeri Gerasimov.
Mariupol is an essential enclave for Russia to maintain the long-awaited land corridor that allows it to connect the Crimean peninsula with the Donetsk region, in the strategic area of Donbas. This corridor, which also runs through the occupied cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk, allows the Russians better supplies and logistical support for their troops on the ground. In addition, it is an alternative to the connection that Moscow opened in 2018 – personally inaugurated by Putin – between Crimea and Russia through the Kerch Strait bridge, which was partially blown up in October.