Russia President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Mariupol which was decimated by Russian forces who besieged the city earlier on in the war on Ukraine.
According to BBC, Putin drove through the demolished city passing by several locations that were notoriously attacked by his army’s month-long assault. In May, Russia had finally taken over the city.
According to a video released by the Russian media, Putin was seen chatting to a companion as they headed towards the city’s concert hall. The Kremlin reported that the visit took place late on Saturday and that Putin’s tour of the city was “spontaneous”.
The Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol in exile, Vadym Boychenko said that the city was “personal” to Putin because of what had happened there.
“We have to understand that Mariupol is a symbolic place for Putin, because of the fury he inflicted on the city of Mariupol. No other city was destroyed like that. No other city was under siege for so long. No other city was subjected to carpet bombing,” he was quoted by BBC as saying.
“He has come in person to see what he has done,” added Boychenko.
Putin drove down Kuprina St, turning into Myru Avenue and then into Metalurhiv Avenue, where the Philharmonic Concert Hall is situated, as mapped by BBC. The video footage shows him sitting alongside a man in a black cap, identified by Russian media as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin.
Mariupol’s Freedom Square depicting sculptures of birds fell on his left as they drove down Myru Avenue. Also, on his right hand side and not shown in the footage stood Mariupol’s Maternity Hospital Number Three which was infamously bombed in March last year.
Amid heavy shelling, pictures emerged of a heavily-pregnant woman named Marianna Vyshemirskaya, coming down rubble-strewn steps with a bloodied face and were shared widely amid outrage at the attack. She survived and gave birth the following day, however, another pregnant woman was killed in the bombing.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had called it a war crime but Russia’s embassy in London had claimed that the hospital was no longer in use and was instead used by members of the Azov regiment, set up as a volunteer militia with links to the far right in 2014, but had since been brought into Ukraine’s National Guard.
Putin then turned off Myru Avenue just before the road arrived at Theatre Square, which was the scene of an awful bombing that is thought to have claimed at least 300 civilian lives, possibly as many as 600.
The building was being was by civilians to take refuge from the siege with a large sign that spelt “children” written in Russian put up in front of the theatre. The building collapsed in the aftermath of the shelling, but Russia denied bombing it and blamed it on the Azov battalion. The Ukrainian city authorities in exile had said in December that Russia was demolishing the ruins of the theatre.
Boychenko had said, “Russia understood where there was a concentration of people, and deliberately destroyed these places, killing people. They systematically worked on this.”
Putin visits new compound built by Russia in outer Mariupol
The footage also showed Putin walking at a new residential compound, said to be in Mariupol’s Nevsky district. He was seen guided by Khusnullin who showed him plans of a reconstruction work. He was also seen talking to local residents, as claimed by Russian media. Nevsky is a new district made up of a dozen apartment blocks in the western part of the city. It has been named after the River Neva, on which the Russian city St Petersburg stands, which is the home city of Vladimir Putin.
Many of the Russian-built buildings were on the city outskirts, said mayor Boychenko. He said, “They built this just to prove that their version of what's happening there is true. But they lie! They lie that they came to liberate the city. But they destroyed it. This city does not exist any longer. And it takes 20 years to restore it!”
Mariupol residents told BBC that new buildings are going up and those buildings damaged by the Russian onslaught are being removed. According to UN estimates, 90 per cent of the residential buildings were damaged or destroyed in the invasion.
Morten Risberg, a Norwegian journalist had visited the city in December. He said that he saw “large-scale rebuilding and restoration” amid “destruction everywhere you looked”.
Risberg said, “They're changing street names and they're painting over Ukrainian colours with Russian colours, and they're putting Russian flags everywhere.” Most of the civilians remaining in the city were just focusing on surviving, he added.
Putin talks a walk through Mariupol’s Philharmonic concert hall
The Russian President can be seen walking through the interior of a concert hall in Mariupol in another part of the footage. Russian state media said that it was the Philharmonic Concert Hall. This is the building that the UN had warned, was to be used to stage trials of Ukrainian troops who fended off Russian forces for months in Mariupol’s massive Azovstal iron and steel plant. Russia was finally able to completely take over Mariupol after the defenders surrendered in May.
Images shared on social media in August, including those by Ukrainian authorities showed metal cages being built on the stage. Prosecuting prisoners of war (POWs) for taking part in hostilities is deemed a war crime by the UN.
However, the trials never took place as the POWs were later part of a prisoner swat for 55 prisoners from Ukraine, including a pro-Kremlin former MP, Viktor Medvedchuk.
Moreover, the latest footage from the insides of the concert hall shows the interior of the building has since been redecorated and the cages are no longer visible.
Boychenko said that the cultural institutions were “where people hid in basements and waited for the Russian terror to end.”
Putin was also seen in a later shot visiting a World War Two memorial built to commemorate Soviet troops who recaptured the city from Nazi Germany.
However, several contradictory reports have also claimed that it was not actually the Russian President, but a doppelganger of Putin who visited Mariupol.