March 20, 2023 - 10:51am

“The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” tweeted Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak. The ‘criminal’ in question was Russian President Vladimir Putin and the ‘scene’ was Mariupol, the Russian-occupied city in southern Ukraine which he toured on Saturday night. 

Discussions of both Putin’s criminality and freedom of movement are particularly apt at this time. Just the day before his journey to Mariupol, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of “individual criminal responsibility” regarding the forced transfer of children from occupied Ukraine. 

Risking arrest if he sets foot in any ICC member states, Putin’s unexpected sojourn in Mariupol can be seen as the act of a man determined to prove he has not been cowed by this new restriction on his movements. The trip followed on from a similarly defiant visit to Crimea, marking the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the territory and showing that he has not given up on trying to portray annexed lands as Russia’s own territory. 

Putin’s travels are also the latest attack in another, more private battle taking place between him and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Leading his country’s resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not restricted Zelenskyy’s mobility, with the Ukrainian President conducting major visits to the UK, France, Belgium and Poland this year alone. Even when not actually showing up in foreign countries, his presence can still be felt around the world thanks to his nightly addresses and regular interviews with international media outlets. He has also been unafraid to visit the scene of battle, travelling to Bakhmut in December, despite it being — in his own words — the “hottest spot on the entire front line”. 

Meanwhile, Putin has largely remained in the Kremlin over the course of the war, with senior officials having restricted access to him and some meetings taking place online. Ukraine’s leadership has taken every available opportunity to paint Putin as an out-of-touch dictator holed up in his bunker and ordering the deaths of his men from afar, in stark contrast to their own jet-setting young President.

Even at the start of the conflict, Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya mocked Putin for “sitting in his bunker”, while Zelenskyy taunted the Russian President: “I’m not hiding. And I’m not afraid of anyone”.  

In December, Vasyl Malyuk, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, denounced Putin as “an old man in a bunker”. After Zelenskyy’s visit to Bakhmut, Ukrainian media commended his bravery, a world away from “that joke of a creature called Vladimir Putin”, adding: “Zelenskyy again demonstrates courage Putin can only dream about”.  

Putin has previously proven susceptible to this type of competitiveness. After Zelenskyy’s trip to Bakhmut, the Kremlin claimed that their leader had himself visited the frontline, only for it to transpire that he had in fact visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, several miles from any actual fighting. Putin’s trek to Mariupol at the weekend constitutes his first foray into occupied Donbas territory and suggests a man who wishes to be seen as more active, courageous and vital. Unconfirmed rumours of the use of body doubles for various visits also testify to Putin’s determination to be seen out and about, far from any bunker.  

During his brief tour of Mariupol, Putin took the opportunity to look at plans for the city’s reconstruction. The brutal siege in 2022 left up to 90% of residential buildings damaged or destroyed by June, according to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Blaming the devastation on retreating Ukrainian troops, Putin’s promise to have the city centre rebuilt by the end of the year is, to say the least, ambitious.

Vladimir Putin is now a wanted man. His recent travels are an attempt to appear less like a fugitive on the run and more like a leader who will not be intimidated. Perhaps, though, this very eagerness speaks to a concern that his faltering troops need some presidential inspiration.