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 in 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 visit in which he has toured one of the symbolic scenes of this huge 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 of deaths and destruction his conquest has left behind. “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 the Telegram social network.
Dressed 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 closed. 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 to the restoration works of the Crimean bridge on December 5. 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 thirteen months ago, has not stopped to visit the enclaves most shaken 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 the city on the Russian side. Gone were at least 22,000 dead civilians, according to estimates made by the mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boichenko, interviewed by EL PAÍS earlier this month. The alderman, who has been in exile since the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion, laments the ease with which Kremlin troops surrounded and besieged the city.
“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 those presumed residents of the city told him. 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 their war. “My birthday is 15 days after yours. I am also 70 years old, but I am left with nothing, ”he snapped at the head of state, who only offered silence in response, according to the recording broadcast on Russian 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 microdistrict 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 under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes, 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 runs through the also 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 last October.
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