The Kremlin stressed security concerns and did not announce the visit until Sunday morning after Putin left.
He was flown by helicopter to Mariupol. The city, on the Sea of Azov, is about 60 miles south of active fighting. It is part of the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces, along with Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which Russia claims to have annexed in violation of international law.
A video released by the Kremlin shows Putin driving a vehicle through several neighborhoods to inspect “the coastline, the theater building and memorable places” and inspect reconstruction work in the city, which was badly damaged by airstrikes , according to a government readout published Sunday.
Other videos broadcast in Russian state media early Sunday morning showed Putin sitting in an empty hall of a rebuilt philharmonic orchestra and talking to a small group of residents in the nighttime darkness outside a newly built housing complex in the Nevsky district, a project widely used by Russian propagandists to praise Moscow’s rapid reconstruction of the city.
“This is a little paradise island here,” said a woman in the video before Putin toured an apartment in the building.
In comments posted on Mariupol message boards on the popular Telegram messaging app, some locals complained that no one showed Putin “the empty pits that form the foundations of destroyed homes.”
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the deposed Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram that “Putin or one of his lookalikes” had visited Mariupol overnight. Andryushchenko called Putin a “scarecrow” and said he probably visited at night to hide the extent of the destruction Russian forces had wrought against the city. At night, he wrote, “the true beauty of the design of the Russian occupation is hidden by darkness.”
Other Ukrainian officials also suggested, without providing evidence, that Putin had not actually visited, but had sent a body double.
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The Russian president’s trip was part of a two-day tour of occupied territories.
Earlier on Saturday, Putin visited Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014, to mark the ninth anniversary of Moscow’s incorporation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Kremlin also said that Putin had visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to meet with top military commanders at the headquarters of the regional defense ministry.
Putin’s trip seemed designed to provide a powerful demonstration of Russia’s claims to invade Ukrainian territory, as well as show tangible gains in a war that has largely come to a standstill following a series of Russian military defeats last fall . In addition to the estimated 200,000 Russian fighters killed or wounded, there are an estimated 120,000 Ukrainian military casualties and more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians killed, according to the United Nations.
The visit to Mariupol also created an image of Putin as defiant and uncompromising after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him, saying he was personally responsible for the criminal abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children sent across the Russian leader were brought.
At least 1,000 such children were transferred from Mariupol to Russia, according to Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s ombudswoman for children’s rights. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova on Friday, accusing her of the same crimes as Putin.
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To solidify Russia’s control over the occupied territories, Moscow has pushed to bring locals into their legal jobs by issuing Russian passports and making it easy to apply for modest government benefits. Russia has tried to present the annexation of the four regions as a fait accompli, and the Russian constitution has even been rewritten to include them.
Following Putin’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attempted to portray the president as focused on easing the transition for residents.
“In conversations with the president, residents of Mariupol raised questions about the delay in paying salaries, obtaining Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports,” Peskov told the state-controlled Tass news agency. “The president will issue instructions on how to deal with the situation.”
Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks, including the bombing of a stage theater, which had been used as a shelter by hundreds of people.
It is also one of the few occupied regional hubs that Moscow still has a firm grip on after its forces were forced to withdraw from most of the northeastern region of Kharkiv and from the city of Kherson in northern Ukraine during last autumn’s Ukrainian counter-offensives. south.
The front line has barely shifted in the winter months, with two sides engaged in a war of attrition that has cost many lives and depleted ammunition supplies.
Ukrainian forces, emboldened by fresh arms supplies from their Western allies, were set to gear up for an offensive in the spring, with President Volodymyr Zelensky pledging to regain all Russian-held territories, including Crimea.
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Putin has not shown a willingness to negotiate with Kiev and has instead tried in recent public speeches to normalize the war, apparently to prepare the Russians for a long fight.
After the invasion, the West largely shunned Moscow, imposing export controls and a wide range of economic sanctions in hopes of undermining Putin’s war machine.
But on Monday, Xi’s arrival will be Beijing’s strongest show of support since the war began. China insists it is neutral in the conflict and has tried to portray itself as a potential mediator.
For Putin, Xi’s visit reinforces the Kremlin’s fundamental position that active support for Ukraine is limited to Western capitals, while Russia is actively building alliances elsewhere.
Siobhán O’Grady, David L. Stern and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.