Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine on Saturday, the day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader accusing him of war crimes.
Putin visited an art school and a children’s centre that are part of a project to develop a historical park on the site of an ancient Greek colony, Russian state news agencies said.
The ICC accused him Friday of bearing personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine during Russia’s full-scale invasion of the neighbouring country that started almost 13 months ago.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded that Russia withdraw from the peninsula as well as the areas it has occupied since last year.
Putin has shown no intention of relinquishing the Kremlin’s gains. Instead, he stressed Friday the importance of holding Crimea.
“Obviously, security issues take top priority for Crimea and Sevastopol now,” he said, referring to Crimea’s largest city. “We will do everything needed to fend off any threats.”
Putin took a plane to travel the 1,821 kilometres from Moscow to Sevastopol, where he took the wheel of the car that transported him around the city, according to Moscow-installed governor Mikhail Razvozhaev.
The ICC’s arrest warrant was the first issued against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The court, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands, also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation.
The move was immediately dismissed by Moscow – and welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough. However, the chances of Putin facing trial at the ICC are highly unlikely because Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
Despite the court’s action and its implication’s for Putin, the United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday that a wartime deal that allowed grain to flow from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia was extended, although neither said for how long.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov tweeted that the deal had been renewed for 120 days, the period that Ukraine, Turkey and the U.N. wanted. But Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Russian news agency Tass that Moscow agreed to a 60-day extension.
Russia and Ukraine are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other affordable food products that developing nations depend on. They signed separate agreements with the U.N. and Turkey last year to allow food to leave Ukraine’s blockaded ports.
Russia has complained that shipments of its fertilizers – which its deal was supposed to facilitate – are not getting to global markets. The country briefly pulled out of the agreement in November before rejoining and agreeing to a 120-day renewal.
Putin signed a law Saturday that imposes stiff fines for discrediting or spreading misleading information about volunteers or mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. The law calls for a fining individuals 50,000 rubles ($660) for a first offence and up to 15 years in prison for repeated offences.
The measure mirrors one passed in the early days of the war that applied to speaking negatively about soldiers or the Russian military in general.
Fighters from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company known for fierce tactics, have taken key roles in Ukraine, particularly in Russia’s grinding campaign to seize the eastern Donetsk province town of Bakhmut.
In Ukraine, authorities reported widespread Russian attacks between Friday night and Saturday morning. Writing on Telegram, the Ukrainian air force command said 11 out of 16 drones were shot down during attacks that targeted the capital, Kyiv, and the western Lviv province, among other areas.
The head of the Kyiv city administration, Serhii Popko, said Ukrainian air defences shot down all drones heading for the capital. Lviv Gov. Maksym Kozytskyi said Saturday that three of six drones were shot down, with the other three hitting a district that borders Poland.
According to the Ukrainian air force, the attacks were carried out from the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov and Russia’s Bryansk province, which also borders Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military reported that between Friday morning and Saturday morning, Russian forces launched 34 air strikes, one missile strike and 57 rounds of anti-aircraft fire. It said falling debris hit southern Ukraine’s Kherson province, damaging seven houses and a kindergarten.
Russia is still concentrating the bulk of its offensive operations in Ukraine’s industrial east, focusing attacks on Bakhmut and other parts of Donetsk province.
Regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said one person was killed and three wounded when 11 towns and villages in the province were shelled Friday.
Further west, Russian rockets hit a residential area overnight in the city of Zaporizhzhia, the regional capital of the partially occupied province of the same name. No casualties were reported, but houses were damaged, Anatoliy Kurtev of the Zaporizhzhia City Council said.
British military officials said Saturday that Russia was likely to expand mandatory conscription to replenish its troops fighting in Ukraine. The U.K. Defense Ministry said in its latest analysis that deputies in the Russian Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, introduced a bill to change the draft ages for men to 21-30, from the current 18-27.
The ministry said many Russian men ages 18-21 claim exemptions from military service because they are enrolled in higher education institutions. The wider age range would mean they would have to serve eventually. British officials said the law would likely pass and take effect in January 2024.