Putin visits Mariupol in propaganda stunt by night to conceal how Russia has destroyed the city
82 years after Adolf Hitler carried out a visit to Nazi-occupied Mariupol, Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin has also entered the city Russia gained control of after months of relentless bombing and shelling. Both visits were clearly for propaganda purposes, however there the similarity ends. Putin’s “working visit” was at night, with this enabling the stunt to be staged without unfortunate images of the devastation and suffering that Russia has caused.
This supposedly ‘spontaneous’ visit took place on the evening of 18 March, the day after the International Criminal Court announced that arrest warrants had been issued against both Putin and his so-called ‘commissioner on children’s rights’ Maria Lvova-Belova over alleged war crimes. The stunt was doubtless intended as a very public act of defiance, and enabled Russian propaganda media to carefully choreograph what was reported, and what omitted. TASS, for example, made a great deal of Putin having, supposedly, been at the wheel, “virtually without a cortege” and with all road rules obeyed. It also showed a photo of Putin during the day, with this, when scrutinized, proving to be from his visit to occupied Sevastopol earlier that day. On the video, there is a scene where Putin is supposedly in the ‘rebuilt’ Mariupol Philharmonic, although this building was one of the few that was not especially damaged. At least two English-language media (BBC, the Guardian) simply report that the official video “shows Mr Putin driving a car through streets at night and speaking to people.” In fact, the streets are scarcely visible and there appears to be only one scene where he stops and talks to four individuals whom Petro Andriushchenko, Adviser to the real Mayor of Mariupol, was able, without difficulty, to identify by name. This was, in short, anything but a spontaneous stop. Nor, of course, are any of the ‘mass rallies’, etc. that the Kremlin stages to mark anniversaries of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, to show the supposed support for their war against Ukraine and others.
Putin’s visit to Mariupol was not only cynical because of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant issued against Putin, but because it came exactly two days after the first anniversary of Russia’s bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theatre. It was known, when Russian bombs were dropped on the Theatre, that as many as a thousand civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were using the building’s basement area to shelter, or so they hoped, from Russian bombs. The attack is believed to have killed at least 300 civilians, and came just hours after the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in the Hague ordered Russia to immediately suspend all military operations in Ukraine.
Mariupol is a port city that Russia needs in order to connect occupied Crimea with occupied parts of Donbas (it is itself part of the Donetsk oblast). It came under sustained and brutal attack from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, with up to 90% of the city’s infrastructure believed to have been destroyed by the relentless bombing and shelling. The city’s Mayor, Vadym Boichenko told the BBC that the level of destruction is likely to still stand at close to 90%. While Russia stages various propaganda stunts, including many which use children, to try to claim that it is rebuilding the city, the reports and images regularly coming out of the city, via its real authorities, show a quite different reality, with people spending hours in queues for drinking water, heaters for apartments that are still not connected to gas or electricity, as well as for food. The Russians have also demolished very many of the scenes of its worst crimes, including most of the Drama Theatre, with it unclear whether attempts were even made to retrieve the bodies of the victims of the 16 March 2022 attack.
In its extensive report, published on 16 March 2023, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine (created by the UN Human Rights Council), reported that it had found that Russia had committed multiple violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine, with many of these amounting to war crimes.
The report noted that Mariupol had been one of the cities most badly hit, and said that it “had interviewed over 30 civilians who were in Mariupol during the Russian armed forces’ siege and bombardment. They reported intensive shelling and airstrikes, including on civilian buildings, and described explosive weapons use during this period as “constant” and “never-ending”. Photos, videos, and satellite imagery corroborate the widespread destruction of residential areas. Civilians were in addition left without basic services during that period.”
The Commission concluded that the majority of the attacks that it had investigated were indiscriminate, with these including Russia’s bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theatre. Russia had repeatedly failed to take precautions to avoid killing civilians, with many of the attacks having also targeted functioning medical institutions. Such attacks included Russia’s bombing of Mariupol’s Maternity Ward No. 3 on 9 March 2022.
Russia effectively besieged Mariupol for three months, with those trying in private cars to leave the city for government-controlled parts of Ukraine seriously risking, and often losing, their lives. It has since refused to cooperate with the Commission, with the International Criminal Court, and other international bodies, including even the Red Cross.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine noted, for example, that they have “also assessed whether the bombardment of Mariupol and the conduct of the siege in the city may constitute a crime against humanity. However, as the Commission has not had access to the Donetsk region, including Mariupol, it does not have a sufficient basis to make such determination and recommends further investigations in this regard. “
Russia is blocking independent investigation, while actively seeking to rewrite the history and claim that its worst crimes were somehow committed by Ukraine. On the propaganda video from occupied Mariupol, for example, Russia’s deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin asserts that it was the Ukrainian Armed Forces that bombed and shelled the city. While international bodies are prevented from establishing the facts, the less coverage given by the international media to the Kremlin’s ‘alternative reality’, the better.