March 19, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Christian Edwards, Mike Hayes, Thom Poole and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, March 20, 2023
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11:01 a.m. ET, March 19, 2023

Analysis: Putin's Mariupol visit is meant to signal to Russian people that the president is still in charge

Analysis by CNN's Clare Sebastian

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves to residents in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a video released on March 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves to residents in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a video released on March 19. (Pool/AP)

Putin’s visit to Mariupol comes almost ten months to the day since Russian troops claimed to have “liberated” the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, the last stand for Ukrainian forces after a bloody siege that devastated large parts of the city. 

And yet the question is why Putin waited so long to carry out what is in some ways an obvious PR exercise. 

Mariupol remains Russia’s biggest prize in this war – still the only major city it has captured, and managed to hold onto (it was forced to retreat from Kherson in November). 

Security concerns may be part of it. Earlier this month Putin cancelled a visit to a tank factory in southern Russia after Russian security officials claimed a small Ukrainian armed group crossed the border and killed two civilians. 

It’s also possible the scale of the destruction of the city meant it took this long for enough rebuilding to happen to provide an acceptable backdrop for the photo ops. All of the footage released of Putin’s visit is after dark.

But if this unannounced visit was in the works before the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Putin himself, that may have cemented his resolve. 

The visit provides a low-risk opportunity to signal to the world that he is not holed up in the Kremlin, and a sign to the Russian people he is in charge, youthful and vigorous enough to drive himself around the city, and heavily focused on rebuilding and integrating those illegally occupied territories of Ukraine into Russia.

6:05 a.m. ET, March 19, 2023

Mariupol: A symbol of Ukrainian resistance

From CNN's Christian Edwards

An aerial view of Mariupol on April 12, 2022.
An aerial view of Mariupol on April 12, 2022. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images/FILE)

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.

Russian attacks on Mariupol began on February 24, 2022 – the first day of the invasion. The city was subjected to some of the war’s worst atrocities.

In March, an airstrike ripped through a maternity and children’s hospital in the city. Russian officials claimed the hospital was a justifiable military target, based on their unproven assertion that Ukrainian military targets were on site and that all patients and medical staff had left.

But footage circulating on social media showed expectant mothers being escorted out of a ruined building amid charred cars and debris.

Among the injured was a pregnant woman who was photographed being carried out on a stretcher. Neither she nor her baby could be saved, a surgeon who treated her later confirmed. The photo caused shockwaves around the world.

Also in March, Russia bombed a theater where hundreds of people had taken shelter in Mariupol. The word “children” was spelled out on two sides of the theater before it was bombed.

Of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war, a third had already left by mid-April, according to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko.

Some of those who stayed took refuge in the Azovstal steel plants. To Ukrainians, Azovstal became a potent symbol of resistance, sheltering about 2,600 soldiers and civilians while the fortress-like facility was pummeled by Russian bombardment for weeks.

To Moscow, the vast site was a frustration, the last stubborn holdout in a city that its forces had otherwise taken control over weeks earlier.

"Block off the industrial site, so that not even a fly can escape," Putin said, his command broadcast on state-run television.

Yuriy Ryzhenkov, CEO of Metinvest Holding, which owns the plant, told CNN why Putin wanted to take Azovstal so badly.

“I don’t think it’s the plant that he wants. I think it’s about the symbolism that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They never expected Mariupol to resist,” Ryzhenkov said.

Azovstal finally fell late in May, after an evacuation operation managed to rescue hundreds of Ukrainians from the plant.

5:28 a.m. ET, March 19, 2023

Welcome to our live coverage

Welcome to our coverage of the Ukraine conflict. Our main news is Vladimir Putin's surprise visit to Mariupol, a city which has been under Russian control since May 2022.

Few details of the trip have been released but the Russian president was flown into Mariupol by helicopter and toured districts around the city in a car, according to a Kremlin statement issued on Sunday.

News of the visit comes just two days after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.

We are seeking more about the visit, as well as reaction from Ukraine and beyond.

8:57 a.m. ET, March 19, 2023

Analysis: How the ICC's arrest warrant has constricted Putin's world

Analysis from CNN's Nic Robertson

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a meeting at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a meeting at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images/FILE)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's world just got a lot smaller after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him over the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Basking in international focus, Putin used to thumb his nose at the world — or manipulate its leaders — in person, a perk if you will of his stubborn, decades-long grip on power.

His love and use of the global limelight helped him at home too, bolstering his tough-guy, bare-chested, bear-hunting image as protector of Russians, holding back supposed malign machinations of NATO marauding the country’s borders.

But all of that is over.
Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty that created the ICC, and they are obligated to extradite him to The Hague to face trial as a war criminal if Putin pitches up on their doorstep.

Putin also faces a dilemma if he shows up in New Delhi for this year’s G20 summit in September. India, like the US and Russia, is not signed up to the ICC, but what will Prime Minister Narendra Modi do?

It leaves ambiguous the type of legal snare Putin could inadvertently find himself in the future. Without careful planning, Putin could find that even in a country unaligned with the ICC — and therefore not beholden to hand him over to The Hague — political pressure or a newfound desire for international justice triggers his arrest.

Putin is unlikely to leave his destiny to the roll of the dice in a foreign court, so his world is smaller even than the ICC holdout nations. So regardless of Kremlin spin, Putin’s ego is dented.

Read more analysis here.