Putin celebrates ’14 Crimea grab

Accused over kids abductions, he poses at children’s school

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Mikhail Razvozhayev, governor of Sevastopol, as he arrives Saturday to visit the Children’s Art and Aesthetic center in Sevastopol, Crimea. More photos at arkansasonline.com/ukrainemonth13/.
(AP/Sputnik, Kremlin Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Mikhail Razvozhayev, governor of Sevastopol, as he arrives Saturday to visit the Children’s Art and Aesthetic center in Sevastopol, Crimea. More photos at arkansasonline.com/ukrainemonth13/. (AP/Sputnik, Kremlin Press Service)


Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to occupied Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of his country's illegal annexation of the peninsula, state media reported Saturday, a defiant gesture just one day after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest.

Putin had been scheduled to participate in ceremonies in Crimea via video link, but instead he traveled to the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, local officials said. State media broadcast images of Putin, dressed in a cardigan, visiting a children's art school and speaking with Mikhail Razvozhaev, governor of Sevastopol.

"On such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol," Razvozhaev wrote on the Telegram messaging app. "Our country has an incredible leader."

The images of Putin walking freely in Crimea -- whose seizure by Russian troops in 2014 was a precursor to his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February -- and his decision to visit a children's school illustrated how the warrant from the International Criminal Court was unlikely to change his behavior.

The court claimed he bore criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, thousands of whom have been sent to Russia since Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. Russian officials dismissed the court's announcement as meaningless and vowed not to cooperate.

Russia also agreed Saturday to extend a deal allowing grain shipments to leave Ukraine, one of the few examples of cooperation between the warring parties since Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who helped broker the initial agreement, announced the last-minute extension of the deal, which lets Ukrainian grain ships pass through a Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea and has helped alleviate global food shortages and limit price increases.

The length of the extension remained unclear Saturday.

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.

A statement from the United Nations did not say how long it would last.

The grain deal had been set to expire later Saturday, and earlier in the week Russia had said it would agree to an extension of only 60 days because its own food and fertilizer exports were being hampered by sanctions. Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations pushed for a 120-day renewal, in line with the initial agreement in July and with a subsequent extension in November.

The deal allows ships carrying grain and fertilizer from Ukraine safe passage to Turkish waters, where they are inspected by a joint team of Turkish, U.N., Ukrainian and Russian officials.

"This agreement, which has provided the shipment of 25 million tons of grain to the world markets with more than 800 ships to date, is of vital importance for the stability of the global food supply," Erdogan said on national television.

Though the agreement was a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Ukraine and Russia since the war began, Moscow has held the deal hostage at various points. In late October, the Kremlin abruptly suspended its participation after an attack on its warships in the port of Sevastopol, but it rejoined a few days later.

Ukraine is a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower, but its shipments plummeted after the war began. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, fell as well.

Talks on extending the deal began Monday in Geneva. Agreement on the previous extension, in November, was reached with days to spare.

BLACK SEA TENSIONS

The grain travels through the Black Sea, where Russia's powerful naval fleet runs up against three members of NATO -- Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria -- that share the coast.

Last week, an American surveillance drone was brought down in the sea after being struck by a Russian fighter jet, U.S. officials said. That was the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war began.

In recent months, Russian warships in the Black Sea have fired cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets that are sometimes hundreds of miles away, hitting towns and cities and damaging the country's energy infrastructure.

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 defenses 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 airstrikes, 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.

Farther 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.

XI ON THE WAY

On Monday, Putin is scheduled to host Xi Jinping, China's top leader, in Russia for the start of a state visit.

The trip by Xi, whose government has not commented on the International Criminal Court warrant, highlights how Russia has maintained relationships with powerful allies that have cushioned the effect of Western diplomatic isolation and sanctions.

American officials say that China so far has refrained from supplying Russia with military aid for use in Ukraine. President Joe Biden has emphasized to Xi that any such move would have "serious consequences" for the U.S.-China relationship, U.S. officials say.

Top U.S. military officials held a phone call Friday with Ukrainian leaders including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who offered "an update on battlefield conditions and expressed appreciation for the continued provision of U.S. security assistance," according to a White House summary of the call.

On Saturday, Putin signed a law that imposes stiff fines for discrediting or spreading misleading information about volunteers or mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. The law calls for a fining individuals $660 for a first offense and up to 15 years in prison for repeated offenses.

The new law aims to prevent criticism of fighters, including those from the Wagner private military company, which has been at the forefront of Russia's bloody, monthslong effort to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

The move came as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, said on the Telegram messaging app his group planned to sign up about 30,000 new fighters by mid-May from recruitment centers established in dozens of cities.

Prigozhin, who had previously suggested that Wagner might wind down combat operations, gave no evidence to support his claim, which came after weeks of complaints that Russia's Defense Ministry was denying his group critical support, including ammunition.

Information for this article was contributed by Shashank Bengali and Victoria Kim of The New York Times and by staff members of The Associated Press.


  photo  Civilians and first responders are on the scene of a cluster bomb attack Saturday that killed at least one person and injured three others while damaging houses and vehicles throughout a residential area of Kramatorsk, Ukraine. (The New York Times/Tyler Hicks)
 
 



 Gallery: Images from Ukraine and Russia, month 13