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Putin has made a surprise visit to the occupied city of Mariupol in Ukraine

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. Then today, he was in the Russian occupied city of Mariupol. The trips come after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin's arrest on war crimes charges. Joining us to talk about it all is NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So, Charles, was this trip really a surprise? The Kremlin marks the Crimea annexation anniversary - what Russians call reunification - every year. So was this really a surprise?

MAYNES: Well, no. As you know, they do this every year. But the fact that Putin was in Crimea - it wasn't shocking in and of itself. But the Kremlin didn't announce it in advance, just as they didn't announce that Putin was traveling to this occupied city of Mariupol today. And if the scenes on state TV are to be believed, that seems to surprise local residents who just happened to be standing outside their newly constructed apartment building when Putin and his security team wandered by. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here you can hear this small crowd giddy from seeing the Russian leader. One elderly gentleman says to Putin, we've seen you on TV so many times. To which Putin replies, well, this time I've decided to meet you personally. And in fact, this trip seemed like a staged, managed event for Putin to highlight Russian efforts to rebuild Mariupol, which of course was destroyed by Russian forces in the battle for control of the city last year. You know, it also seemed a little bit of a response to President Biden's trip to Kyiv a month ago, given that this was Putin's first trip to these newly occupied and, in theory, newly annexed territories since the start of the war.

RASCOE: And did Putin address the warrant for his arrest issued by the International Criminal Court?

MAYNES: No, not a word. Of course, Russia has dismissed the ICC charges - those being that Putin and a member of his cabinet oversaw the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children into Russian families. They call it irrelevant. Russia, the Kremlin officials note, like the U.S., is not a signatory of the international court and therefore doesn't recognize its jurisdiction. The warrant, they say, is null and void, end of story. Yet Putin pointedly visited a children's school during his trip to Crimea, which I suppose, if you're looking for hints of defiance, seems to deliver.

RASCOE: In another bit of news from that region, the UN announced Russia has agreed to extend the Black Sea grain initiative, although it's not entirely clear for how long. What can you tell us about that?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, just to back up, you know, this was a deal that was first brokered by the UN in Turkey in July, ending a Russian military blockade of the Black Sea that had prevented Ukraine from exporting its massive grain stores to global markets. That caused a huge spike in food prices in much of the developing world. And Moscow had been threatening to exit the deal ahead of the Saturday deadline. It complains the agreement frees up Ukrainian grain while failing to ease restrictions on Russia's agricultural exports, mostly grain and fertilizer. You know, Russia says it wants to now see tangible progress on that front if the agreement's to continue past May.

For now, they've signed on publicly for another 60 days, although the UN-brokered deal was supposed to be twice that long. Certainly the UN is eager to keep it in place. They note the deal's already allowed more than 23 million tons of grain to reach global markets, and that's helped lower food prices.

RASCOE: In the about 30 seconds we have left, Chinese President Xi Jinping is headed to Moscow this week for an official state visit. What can we expect there?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, Putin has eagerly sought President Xi's backing as relations with the West have soured over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And Xi's state visit, you know, his first since being reelected to a third term in office, carries real symbolism in a relationship that both sides declared has no limits. Yet China's also sought to present itself as neutral on the Ukraine issue. And Beijing says Xi will bring an objective and fair position that aims to promote peace. You know, unclear is how that squares with the Kremlin's insistence that its objectives in Ukraine can only achieve by military means.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Thanks so much for joining us.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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