Explained: What Vladimir Putin’s visit to Russia-occupied Mariupol means for the war


Russia’s Vladimir Putin had a busy weekend. On Saturday, he went to Crimea in a visit marking the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. And on Sunday, he came closest to the front lines of the war when he visited Mariupol.

The surprise visit, as the Kremlin called it, comes at a time when Russia is continuing its relentless battle in Ukraine’s eastern front in Bakhmut.

The Russian strongman’s tour of Mariupol also elicited strong reactions from Ukraine, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s aide criticising Putin and referring to him as a ‘criminal’.

But what was Putin’s purpose of the visit? What has the Russian president achieved by visiting Mariupol? We have the answers.

A helicopter ride and a drive within the city

Russian president Vladimir Putin made his way to the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first trip to Ukrainian territory Moscow annexed in September on Sunday. Vladimir Putin’s visit came in the dark of night and, according to Russian news reports, he arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites”, concert hall and coastline.

He was shown on state media chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and a children’s centre in Sevastopol, Crimea. State media said he visited a new residential neighbourhood that had been built by the Russian military, with the first people moving in last September.

“Do you live here? Do you like it?” Putin was shown asking residents.

“Very much. It’s a little piece of heaven that we have here now,” a woman replied, clasping her hands and thanking the Russian president for “the victory”.

Another video by Russian media showed Putin telling one man “we need to start getting to know each other better.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin (left), and Russian deputy prime Minister Marat Khusnullin,drive a car during their visit to Mariupol in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, Ukraine. AP

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, described the visit as a “full-scale working trip” and stressed that many aspects of it were not planned. There was “no motorcade as such,” he said, adding that Putin had driven himself through the city.

Among the many sites that Putin visited in Mariupol was the Philharmonic concert hall — the same place the United Nations warned was to be used to stage trials of Ukrainian troops who held out against Russian forces for months in Mariupol’s massive Azovstal iron and steel plant. It is important to note here that the trials never took place.

The Russian leader is also reported to have met top military commanders in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city just east of Mariupol.

Interestingly, this is the first time that Putin, who has mostly been in Moscow throughout this war — which began in February last year — visited the front lines of the war. Compare this to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, who often goes to the frontline to boost the morale of his troops.

Also read: Will the Russia-Ukraine war end in 2023?

Why Mariupol though?

Mariupol, a city in Donetsk Oblast, is situated in the southeastern area of the country. It lies just 10 kilometres from the Sea of Azov.

A port city, Mariupol with a pre-war population of about 4,00,000, was the site of intense battles in mid-2022 with Moscow’s troops carrying out some of their most notorious strikes here. In fact, the battle of Mariupol was considered one of the war’s longest and bloodiest, before the one now being raged in Bakhmut.

Mariupol’s plight first came into focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on 9 March last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theatre that was serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter.

Men walk near multi-storey apartment blocks, which were destroyed in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Mariupol. The UN estimates that 90 per cent of the buildings have been damaged.

Evidence obtained by the Associated Press last summer suggested that the real death toll could be closer to 600. At the time, Ukraine and human rights groups called the attacks war crimes and it could be one of the incidents for which Putin could face action from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance as Russia continued its barrage of attacks last year. Even when the city fell to Russia, a group of Ukrainians held out at the Azovstal steel plant for weeks before the stronghold finally fell.

The destruction that Russia brought on Mariupol has been catastrophic. The UN estimates that 90 per cent of the buildings were damaged and of the 4,00,000 people, 3,50,000 were forced to leave.

After Russia took over Mariupol in May 2022, they have been, according to a BBC report, rebuilding the city in order to win over the hearts and minds of its people. The purpose is to assimilate Mariupol and make it Russia’s own, reported the BBC.

Putin’s visit to Mariupol was recorded and shown on Russian state media. The video shows Russia’s vice-premier Marat Khusnullin telling Putin, “As you can see we have more or less repaired the roads.”

Messaging behind the visit

Besides trying to ‘win the hearts of the people in Mariupol’, Putin’s ‘surprise’ visit also had a tactical significance to it. His visit comes just after the ICC issued warrants against the Russian leader and his top official Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova over the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.

As Sky News reported, Putin wanted to send a message back home that despite the ICC warrant it is business as usual for him and he can go anywhere he wants, including into mainland Ukraine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin entered Mariupol through helicopter and then took a drive, visiting key landmarks. Reuters

It is a brazen attempt to antagonise the West. Mikhail Vinogradov, a political scientist who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, a think tank, said Putin’s visit to Mariupol was likely a response to “the ICC warrant and to the criticism that he doesn’t visit combat zones.”

Moreover, the Russian leader’s visit may have also been an attempt to silence his critics, who have been questioning the success of this war. Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm focused on Russia, told the New York Times that Putin’s surprise visit constituted a message to the Russian pro-invasion hawks. The trip, she said, showed that Putin “morally supports Russian warriors,” while the interview was intended to fend off any criticism that might make him look “naive, short-sighted and weak.”

Also read: Big Beijing Steps In: How Chinese brands are replacing iPhones and Audis in Russia’s sanction-hit economy

NPR‘s Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes said on Weekend Edition on Sunday that Putin’s visit, “Seemed a little bit of a response to US president Joe Biden’s trip to Kyiv a month ago, given that this was Putin’s first trip to these newly occupied and, in theory, newly annexed territories since the start of the war”.

Interestingly, Putin’s visit to Mariupol also comes just before China’s Xi Jinping visits Moscow — his first state visit to the European country in four years. Russia is expected to present Xi’s trip as evidence that it has a powerful friend prepared to stand with it against a hostile West that it says is trying in vain to isolate and defeat it.

How did Ukraine react?

Ukraine was not happy with Putin’s visit — Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak on Twitter said, “The criminal always returns to the crime scene… the murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and (its) graves. Cynicism and lack of remorse.”

The Ukrainian defense ministry said in a statement that Putin chose to visit at night to hide from Russian TV viewers the destruction he wrought on Mariupol and the ensuing desolation it has caused.

The exiled city council of Mariupol also condemned the visit. Mariupol's Ukrainian mayor in exile Vadym Boychenko told the BBC that Mariupol was “personal” to Putin because of what had happened there.

“We have to understand that Mariupol is a symbolic place for Putin, because of the fury he inflicted on the city of Mariupol. No other city was destroyed like that. No other city was under siege for so long. No other city was subjected to carpet bombing,” he said.

“He has come in person to see what he has done,” he added.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: What Vladimir Putin’s visit to Russia-occupied Mariupol means for the war
Explained: What Vladimir Putin’s visit to Russia-occupied Mariupol means for the war
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