A defiant Putin visits the occupied city of Mariupol

(CNN) — Vladimir putin paid a surprise visit to Russian-occupied Mariupol, a city his forces left in ruins when they captured it last year.

The Russian president’s first visit to the occupied Ukrainian territory is an apparent act of defiance, coming just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him.

Putin was transferred to Mariupol by helicopter and toured the city’s districts in a car, pictures released by Russian authorities show.

The President of Russia is shown meeting with apparently surprised residents. Putin tells a man: “We have to start getting to know each other better.”

A Kremlin statement did not say when the visit took place, although he did visit Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of its annexation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with residents during his visit to Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 19. (Pool/AP)

All published images of Putin’s visit are at night, a possible way authorities hide the damage.

The news of the visit comes after the International Criminal Court on Friday issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova over an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. Putin has yet to comment on the order.

Moscow plans to reopen the Mariupol Drama Theater 0:44

The visit is likely to be seen as particularly challenging for Ukrainians, as Mariupol was long a symbol of resistance that has seen some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its invasion last year.

During the trip, the Kremlin said Putin also examined the Mariupol coastline, visiting a yacht club and a theater.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who accompanied him, spoke in detail with Putin about the “ongoing construction and restoration work” in the city.

In the video, Khusnullin tells Putin: “There is a plan to rebuild it at the end of the third year. We plan to make it a fully functional airport capable of carrying out flights to all cities in Russia and abroad.”

The Kremlin added that Putin held a meeting at the command post of the special military operation, Russia’s description of its invasion, in Rostov-on-Don.

Vladimir Putin, left, drives with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin during his visit to Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 19. (AP)

A Ukrainian parliamentarian, Oleksii Honcharenko, criticized the visit and called Putin a “war criminal” on Sunday, questioning the timing of his visit to Mariupol.

Questioning his timing, he asked in a Telegram post: “Did the war criminal come to see with his own eyes the genocide he committed in Mariupol? Why at night? He is afraid?”

Mariupol, a port city on the Azov Sea, is located in the Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine and has been under direct Russian control since May 2022.

It was in Mariupol that Russian forces carried out some of their most notorious attacks, including one on one maternity ward last March and theater bombing which forced hundreds of civilians to seek refuge.

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks last year. It is famous that even when most of the city had fallen, its defenders held out at the Azovstal steel plant for weeks before the fortress finally fell to man.

An aerial view of Mariupol on April 12, 2022. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images)

Defense analysts previously told CNN that Russian forces tried to level Mariupol to make the city “easier to control.”

Of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war, more than a third already left the territory.

CNN’s Duarte Mendonca and Kostan Nechyporenko contributed to this report.

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