Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to Russian-occupied Mariupol, his first visit to territory captured by his forces in the year-long full-scale conflict.
The visit was an apparent act of defiance, coming just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him.
It also prompted outrage from Ukraine – the defense ministry compared Putin to a “thief” visiting “under the cover of night” – with the city having been reduced to ruins in Russia’s offensive.
Putin was flown into Mariupol by helicopter and toured districts around the city in a car, footage released by Russian authorities showed.
The Russian president is shown meeting seemingly surprised residents. Putin tells one man “we need to start getting to know each other better.”
The Kremlin insisted the visit was “spontaneous.” It is not clear when it took place, although on Saturday Putin visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of its annexation.
All of the footage released of Putin’s visit is after dark, a possible way for the authorities to conceal damage.
News of the visit comes after the ICC issued arrest warrants on Friday for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. Putin is yet to comment on the warrant.
The visit is particularly provocative to Ukrainians as Mariupol was long a symbol of resistance and witnessed some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its invasion.
During the trip, the Kremlin said Putin also examined the coastline of Mariupol, visiting a yacht club and theater building.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who accompanied him, spoke in detail to Putin about “ongoing construction and restoration work” in the city, including its airport.
In the video, Khusnullin tells Putin: “There is a plan to reconstruct it by the end of the third year. We plan for it to be a fully functional airport capable of making flights to all cities of Russia and abroad.”
The Kremlin added that Putin held a meeting at the command post of the special military operation – Russia’s description of its invasion – in Rostov-on-Don.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, slammed the “cynicism” and “lack of remorse” over Putin’s visit.
“The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” Podolyak said on Twitter.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is located in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast and has been under direct Russian control since May 2022.
It was in Mariupol that Russian forces carried out some of their most notorious strikes, including an attack on a maternity hospital last March and the bombing of a theater in which hundreds of civilians had sought refuge.
Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks last year. Famously, even when most of the city had fallen, its defenders held out at the Azovstal steel plant for weeks before the stronghold finally fell.
Defense analysts previously told CNN that Russian forces had tried to flatten Mariupol to make the city “easier to control.”
Many of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war have left.
CNN’s Duarte Mendonca and Kostan Nechyporenko contributed reporting.