VLADIMIR Putin has made a shock visit to the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to Russian state media.
He was filmed by Russian state TV driving around the stricken city and meeting with residents in what would be his first visit to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in February last year.
It comes just days after an arrest warrant was issued for the tyrant over alleged war crimes in the war-torn country.
State media reported Putin, 70, made a “working trip” to the war-ravaged port city of Mariupol, his first visit to the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine’s Donbas region since the conflict began.
Putin flew into the city by helicopter, Russian news agencies reported citing the Kremlin.
He travelled around several districts, making stops and talking to residents.
In one trip to a new apartment building, Putin told the Ukrainian citizens: “We need to start getting to know each other better.”
It is the closest to the front lines Putin has been since the year-long war began.
Mariupol fell in May after one of the war’s longest and bloodiest battles, marking Russia’s first major victory after it failed to seize Kyiv and focused instead on southeastern Ukraine.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital there was a war crime.
While Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a number of trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin.
In the Nevsky district of Mariupol, Putin visited a family in their home, Russian media reported.
The new residential neighbourhood has been built by the Russian military and the first people moved in last September after it was illegally annexed.
Residents have been “actively” returning, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who accompanied Putin, was cited as saying by Russian agencies.
Mariupol had a population of half a million people before the war and was home to the Azovstal steel plant, one of Europe’s largest.
Khusnullin said: “The downtown has been badly damaged.
“We want to finish (reconstruction) of the centre by the end of the year, at least the facade part. The centre is very beautiful.”
Russian media broadcast videos showing the Russian leader driving a car at night through a built-up area as well as walking into what media said was the philharmonic, restored in just three months.
There was also no immediate reaction to the visit from Kyiv.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of the four regions Putin moved in September to annex.
Kyiv and its Western allies condemned the move as illegal.
Russian media reported on Sunday that Putin also met with the top commander of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov who is in charge of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
It comes after Putin made an appearance in the disputed Ukrainian territory of Crimea on Saturday, which was illegally annexed by Putin‘s forces in 2014.
In the short clip published on the Russian social media network VK, Putin, 70, was seen walking stiffly with his head bowed.
He was shown opening an art school and a children’s centre in the port city of Sevastopol.
The visit came after the International Criminal Court on Friday accused the Russian tyrant of the “unlawful deportation” of children from Ukraine – a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
Alongside Putin, officials at the ICC charged his children’s commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, of orchestrating the alleged kidnapping of thousands of children.
Video filmed in February shows Putin and Lvova-Belova casually discussing how she brought back a child from Ukraine.
Putin is seen approving Lvova-Belova’s personal adoption of the boy from Mariupol, a city in southern Ukraine flattened by the Russian invasion last year.
Putin is yet to comment publicly on the ICC warrant, but his trips into Ukrainian territory claimed by Russia have been seen by some observers as an act of defiance.