(Moscow) Vladimir Putin traveled to Mariupol, a Ukrainian city devastated by bombing, his first visit to a conquered zone since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the Kremlin reported on Sunday, after issuing a warrant international arrest warrant against the Russian President.

He flew to Mariupol by helicopter and toured the city, driving a car, the Kremlin press service said on Sunday.

According to images broadcast by Russian public television, the trip took place at night, Vladimir Putin being introduced in particular to the night lighting of the streets of Mariupol and speaking with residents. “We are praying for you,” Mr. Putin assured one of the residents, saying the city was “a little piece of paradise.”

The Russian leader also visited a reconstructed local musical theater and followed the presentation of a report on the reconstruction works of this devastated city, according to the Kremlin.

This is his first trip to this Ukrainian port city besieged for months by Russian forces before falling in May 2022.

This surprise visit to Mariupol is above all the first trip of the master of the Kremlin to the Donbass, in the conquered zone, since the start of the Russian offensive on February 24, 2022, which earned Moscow a series of severe international sanctions.

According to the Kremlin, Putin also held a meeting in Rostov-on-Don (southern Russia), not far from the Ukrainian border, with Russian military officials, including the head of state. -Major Valery Gerasimov.

He had previously traveled to Crimea on Saturday for the 9th anniversary of the annexation of this Ukrainian peninsula by Russia, also under international sanctions. It was his first visit to Crimea since 2021.

Vladimir Putin has been targeted since Friday by an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which accuses him of the war crime of “illegal deportation” of Ukrainian children.

The court, which sits in The Hague, also tried to verify whether the bombardment and siege of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, could constitute a crime against humanity. She concluded that she lacked elements to reach such a conclusion, having not had access to the Donetsk region, where Mariupol is located.

The Kremlin ruled “null and void” the ICC arrest warrant, which Moscow does not recognize as having jurisdiction.

On Saturday in Sevastopol, home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, Mr. Putin had notably attended the inauguration ceremony of a school of arts for children in the company of the local governor, Mikhail Razvojayev, according to the images broadcast by the public television channel Rossia-1.

This city is located only about 240 km from Kherson, a southern Ukrainian city retaken by the Kyiv army in November after the withdrawal of Russian forces.

“Our President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin knows how to surprise. In the good sense of the word,” Mr. Razvojayev wrote on Telegram.

“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Driving. Because on a historic day like today, he is always with Sevastopol and its people,” said Mikhail Razvojayev.

Russia annexed Crimea on March 18, 2014, following a referendum not recognized by Kyiv and the international community.

While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in January that he intended to take back Crimea – “our land” – by arms, Moscow continues to insist that “Crimea is Russian”, refusing to make it the object of possible peace negotiations.

The international arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin was issued the day Moscow and Beijing unveiled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia from Monday, meant to usher in a “new era” in relations between the two allies.

This visit, scheduled until Wednesday, comes just over a year after the launch of the Russian offensive in Ukraine which led the Kremlin to reorient itself towards China, against a backdrop of tensions with the West which supports the ‘Ukraine.

Last month, China sought to establish itself as a mediator by issuing a document urging Moscow and Kyiv to hold peace talks.