Defiant Vladimir Putin drives himself around the streets of Mariupol he bombed to the ground

Vladimir Putin driving around Mariupol in a visit to the city at the weekend

Vladimir Putin driving around Mariupol in a visit to the city at the weekend

Vladimir Putin drove himself through Mariupolthe city he bombed into the ground, in a show of strength as he prepared to meet Xi Jinping in Moscow with a war crimes arrest warrant hanging over him.

The Russian leader capped a weekend of surprise visits to occupied territory by visiting the only major city captured from Ukraine in a snub to the West ahead of a two-day summit with the Chinese president starting on Monday.

On his first visit to the territory captured by his army last year, the Russian president met residents of a rebuilt apartment block and toured a reconstructed orchestra hall.

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites”, concert hall and coastline, according to Russian state media.

One resident, filmed sobbing on his arrival, told Putin that she now “owned a piece of paradise” after the leader asked if she liked her new apartment.

“Wow, we have only ever seen you on television,” one man said after shaking Putin’s hand, in what was likely a carefully choreographed display.

Plain-clothed Russian security agents wearing microphones hovered around Putin, occasionally whispering into the ear of a resident or guiding them on where to stand.

“We’ll have to get to know each other better,” Putin told the beaming residents.

The Russian president meets residents of a rebuilt apartment block - AP

The Russian president meets residents of a rebuilt apartment block – AP

The trip came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Mr Xi this week, which is expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.

The two leaders are scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting on Monday followed by an “informal lunch”, with more formal negotiations to take place on Tuesday.

China said on Friday it wants to “play a constructive role in promoting peace talks“. Beijing, a major Russian ally, has long sought to portray itself as a neutral party to the conflict.

The Russian military flattened Mariupol, previously a bustling port city of 400,000 people, in March and April last year. In one of its worst crimes of the war, it dropped bombs on a theater where hundreds of women and children were sheltering. Now be killed.

Despite the destruction and the thousands of civilians killed, the Kremlin has been eager to project its capture of Mariupol as a success story. It quickly patched up and painted the main streets running through the city and also promised to construct new housing.

Putin has been criticized for rarely leaving the Kremlin but he appeared determined to change that over the weekend with his series of surprise visits.

On Saturday he traveled to occupied Crimea to tour a children’s education center before flying by helicopter to Mariupol and then to Rostov in Russia, where he received a battlefield briefing from his top military commanders.

Russian commentators praised Putin’s visit to Mariupol as a brave and clever move that gave Western intelligence the slip.

“Putin drove himself through Mariupol without security in order to deceive Nato intelligence as much as possible,” said Sergei Markov, a former Russian presidential adviser.

“Putin traveled to Mariupol not as a statesman, but as a private individual.”

In the car with Putin was Marat Khusnullin, a deputy Russian prime minister, who gave the Russian leader a briefing on reconstruction efforts as he was driving.

Putin was briefed by Marat Khusnullin, a deputy Russian prime minister, while he was driving - AP

Putin was briefed by Marat Khusnullin, a deputy Russian prime minister, while he was driving – AP

Putin has appeared far more energized in the past few weeks.

Commentators linked to the Kremlin have said that he is in a far better moodcracking jokes and laughing.

Six months ago, the Russian army in Ukraine looked on the brink of collapse and Putin was being shunned as a pariah, even by other autocratic leaders.

Now though, the Russian army has stabilized its front line.

The Russian media have been bragging about Mr Xi’s first trip to the Kremlin since 2019. In an article on Sunday, the popular Moskovskaya Komsomolts newspaper described it as a clear “gesture of support for Moscow from the Chinese side”.

Also on Sunday, the British Ministry of Defense said that a decision by Russian forces occupying the Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia this month to redesignate Melitopol as the regional capital suggested that they have given up on trying to capture Zaporizhzhia city.

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