Putin’s visit to Mariupol comes almost ten months to the day since Russian troops claimed to have “liberated” the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, the last stand for Ukrainian forces after a bloody siege that devastated large parts of the city.
And yet the question is why Putin waited so long to carry out what is in some ways an obvious PR exercise.
Mariupol remains Russia’s biggest prize in this war – still the only major city it has captured, and managed to hold onto (it was forced to retreat from Kherson in November).
Security concerns may be part of it. Earlier this month Putin cancelled a visit to a tank factory in southern Russia after Russian security officials claimed a small Ukrainian armed group crossed the border and killed two civilians.
It’s also possible the scale of the destruction of the city meant it took this long for enough rebuilding to happen to provide an acceptable backdrop for the photo ops. All of the footage released of Putin’s visit is after dark.
But if this unannounced visit was in the works before the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Putin himself, that may have cemented his resolve.
The visit provides a low-risk opportunity to signal to the world that he is not holed up in the Kremlin, and a sign to the Russian people he is in charge, youthful and vigorous enough to drive himself around the city, and heavily focused on rebuilding and integrating those illegally occupied territories of Ukraine into Russia.