President Vladimir Putin of Russia traveled to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Friday, a visit intended to demonstrate his defiance of Western pressure and to show his support for forces that have razed the city as part of Moscow’s campaign to assert control over the country’s eastern regions.
The trip, which was not announced in advance, was Putin’s first to the region since the start of a conflict that has pitted Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian government forces and left more than 10,000 people dead.
The visit was met with defiance by Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, who dismissed it as a “PR campaign” and called it an example of Russia’s “continued aggression” in the region.
Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, has been the site of some of the worst fighting in the conflict, with Russian-backed separatists launching multiple offensives against the city since the conflict began in 2014. In the summer of 2016, Russian forces effectively destroyed the city, leaving it in ruins and driving thousands from their homes.
Despite the destruction, Putin’s visit was seen as an attempt to shore up support for the separatists and to send a signal that he will not be deterred by international sanctions or other attempts to pressure him to end the conflict.
Accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior officials, Putin was greeted in Mariupol by a crowd of supporters who waved Russian flags and chanted his name.
During a televised speech at a local factory, Putin praised the workers and declared that Russia was determined to stand up for their rights. He also said that Russia was committed to rebuilding the city and restoring its infrastructure.
The visit was quickly condemned by Western leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said it was “a gross violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Analysts noted that while Putin’s visit may have been intended to bolster his image as a strong leader, it was unlikely to have any lasting impact on the conflict.
“This visit is more about Putin’s domestic audience than about achieving any concrete results in Ukraine,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “It will not change the situation on the ground in any way.”
Despite the criticism, Putin is unlikely to be deterred by the international community’s condemnation of his actions. With his defiance of Western pressure, he has shown that he is determined to continue his campaign to assert control over Ukraine.