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Screenshot of President of Russia Vladimir Putin with Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visiting Mariupol, March 19

‘No one showed him the empty pits’ Putin visits Mariupol for the first time since Russia destroyed and then annexed the city

Source: Meduza
Screenshot of President of Russia Vladimir Putin with Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visiting Mariupol, March 19
Screenshot of President of Russia Vladimir Putin with Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visiting Mariupol, March 19
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Late at night on March 18–19, Russian president Vladimir Putin paid an unplanned visit to Mariupol. The city was almost completely destroyed during a two-and-a-half-month siege by Russian troops in spring 2022, and was annexed by Russia in fall 2022. Russian state news networks ran approving video footage of Putin’s visit, including a meeting with residents of one of the city’s restored neighborhoods. Independent media outlets confirmed the trip and published the reactions of a few of the city’s other residents, who were less than thrilled with Putin’s drop-in visit.

Russian president Vladimir Putin visited the Donbas. State news agency TASS notes that it is Putin’s first visit to the region since the start of the full-scale invasion. It is also his first visit to the Ukrainian territories that Russia annexed in the fall of 2022. The Kremlin has previously stated the Putin would visit the Donbas “when the time comes.”

The Kremlin’s press service confirmed that Putin paid a work-related visit to Mariupol. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said that Putin was in the city late at night on March 18–March 19. Journalists with publication Verstka independently confirmed Putin’s appearance in Mariupol.

The Russian president arrived in Mariupol by helicopter, and then toured several parts of the city by car, said the Kremlin. He examined the shore near the yacht club, the square in front of the drama theater (which was blown up in March 2022, killing at least 12 and possibly over 500 civilians hiding inside), and other “memorable places,” as well as the “restored philharmonic” and the university.

After visiting Mariupol, Putin held a meeting at the command post in Rostov-on-Don, where he consulted with Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces.

Putin was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who reported on recent construction and restoration efforts in the city. Russian state media channels published video of the trip.

Ranshe vsekh, nu pochti
Ranshe vsekh, nu pochti
Marat Khusnullin and Vladimir Putin. Screenshot from a state media video of their visit to Mariupol.
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Among other things, Khusnullin told Putin that Ukrainian troops allegedly shelled residential buildings while retreating. “What they did is clear. In places where we advanced, there are no signs of artillery fire. Their side used direct shots from tanks, how they retreated is clearly visible — they shot straight into homes. They hit them, simply destroyed them,” said the deputy prime minister. He also says that the Armed Forces of Ukraine mined the bodies of the deceased and city hospital equipment. “Nazis, as they’re called. Normal people wouldn’t do that,” Putin observed.

During his visit, Putin met with Mariupol residents who had received new housing to replace their ruined homes, according to the Kremlin’s press service. RIA Novosti published a video showing the Russian president meeting with residents of the Nevsky neighborhood. One of the women who participated in the meeting said that residents had been “waiting” and “praying” for Putin’s arrival. When the president asked if she liked it in Nevsky she answered, “Very much. We have a little piece of heaven here.”

Putin during a meeting with residents of Mariupol’s Nevsky neighorhood. Screenshot from a state media video of Putin’s visit to Mariupol.
AP / Scanpix / LETA
‘As it happens, my birthday is 15 days after yours. I’m also 70, but I’ve been left with nothing,” one Mariupol resident told Putin.

Verstka found one of the participants in the meeting on social media and confirmed that he does, in fact, live in Mariupol.

The Telegram channel Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) called attention to other Mariupol residents’ reactions to Putin’s visit. Journalists noted that Nevsky, where Putin was brought, is “essentially the only rebuilt section of the completely destroyed city.” The channel published several quotes that residents of other areas of Mariupol had posted on social media:

“It’s too bad that he didn’t stop by our house, the eastern bank, the square. No windows, no doors, no hot water or heat. He could have talked to locals.”

“Why was he brought there, they brought him to areas that were preserved and rebuilt. No one showed him the empty pits that used to be under the foundations of destroyed homes.”

“Nobody gives a fuck about us. It’s all done for pictures on the TV screen, so people in Russia can see.”

Putin’s visit to Mariupol took the Kremlin’s journalist pool and officials by surprise, writes Verstka, as did Putin’s March 18 visit to Crimea. The publication notes that Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu does not appear in photos or videos of either visit. Neither does Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Verstka considers this proof that Putin’s trip to the Donbas was not planned.

The Kremlin later confirmed that neither the trip to Mariupol nor the meeting in Rostov-on-Don were planned. According to Dmitry Peskov, Putin traveled around Mariupol with almost no motorcade.

Russia captured Mariupol in spring 2022, after a two-and-a-half-month siege. The city came under Russian control in May, after the last group of Ukrainian troops, who were defending the Azovstal factory, surrendered. According to the legitimate Mariupol authorities, during the Russian occupation, half of the city’s homes and 90 percent of its infrastructure were destroyed.

Since February, Ukrainian sources have reported occasional explosions in Mariupol, which is located 80 kilometers (around 50 miles) from the frontlines. The Ukrainian side has also reported rocket strikes on the city by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Russian-appointed authorities in Mariupol have said that the city’s air defense systems are working, but have denied any damage. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have said that Mariupol is no longer “absolutely inaccessible” by the Ukrainian military.

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