Vladimir Putin has posed for propaganda snaps inside Mariupol’s empty theatre on the site of Russia’s bombing which is believed to have killed hundreds of sheltering Ukrainian civilians. The Russian leader has carried out a first official visit to the occupied Ukrainian lands the Kremlin illegally annexed last year.
Putin was brought on a stage-managed tour of the Russian-held city by local officials.
The Kremlin released footage of Putin visiting various “memorial” sites but no indication was given of when the trip took place.
On Sunday, the state-run Rossiya 24 channel broadcast Putin chatting with locals outside what appeared to be a freshly constructed residential complex and being shown around one of the apartments.
In May, Moscow gained complete control of the city, leaving approximately 100,000 individuals trapped without basic necessities such as food, water, electricity, and heat.
The city’s infrastructure was severely damaged by constant bombardment, resulting in rows of destroyed or empty buildings.
The dire situation of Mariupol was first brought to light by a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9th of the previous year, shortly after Russian troops entered Ukraine.
A week later, a theater serving as the city’s main bomb shelter was bombed, killing around 300 people. However, evidence obtained by the AP in the spring indicated that the actual death toll could be as high as 600.
According to an aide to Mariupol’s exiled Ukrainian mayor, Russian officials have started demolishing the damaged theatre in December.
When the structure was bombed by Russian warplanes in March, Petro Andryushchenko accused the occupying authorities of attempting to conceal the deaths of civilians.
A video showed a bulldozer destroying part of the back of the building, while a screen with images of Russian cultural icons was put up around the ruins.
Mr Andryushchenko stated that the Russians plan to leave the front of the theatre intact while demolishing the rest in order to build a new theatre on the site of the tragedy, which he referred to as building “on the bones of Mariupol’s people.”
Earlier, on Saturday, Putin travelled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine.
Mariupol became a worldwide symbol of defiance after outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May.
The visits were a show of defiance by the Russian leader two days after a court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges.
Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of him facing trial anytime soon.
The trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.