Is Putin struggling to maintain his strongman image?

The Daily Retina

China’s president Xi Jinping has arrived in Russia for the start of a three day state visit. The aim of the trip, according to the Chinese, is to strengthen relations between the two countries in a world threatened by ‘acts of hegemony, despotism and bullying’.

Xi and Putin will meet in person this afternoon, before holding bilateral talks tomorrow. Their meeting comes just weeks after China published a twelve-point ‘peace plan’ for Ukraine calling for the ‘sovereignty of all countries’ to be respected. This morning, the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed Ukraine would be discussed by the two leaders: ‘President Putin will give exhaustive explanations so that President Xi can get Russia’s view on current matters firsthand.’ Xi is said to be considering a phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky once his state visit has finished.

Xi’s visit to Russia comes amid concerns in the West that China is considering providing more concrete support to Russia in its war. Whether he will actually attempt to negotiate with Putin on the conflict, or it is just a pretence to indeed solidify an alliance between Russia and China, remains to be seen.

That the risk-averse Putin visited Mariupol at all is an attempt to assert himself as a strong leader at home

The Chinese president’s state visit comes off the back of a busy weekend for Putin. First came the news on Friday afternoon that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague had issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president over war crimes in Ukraine – the first of its kind for this conflict. The ICC accused Putin of personal responsibility for the abduction and transportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

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Today, ahead of Xi’s visit, in a gesture bordering on the farcical, the Russian Investigative Committee opened its own criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and judges who issued Putin’s arrest warrant. It has done so, it says, because the case against Putin ‘is obviously illegal, since there are no grounds for criminal prosecution’.

Then, on Sunday, surprising both Russian and foreign media alike, it emerged that Putin had paid a visit to Ukraine itself. His first stop was to Crimea to mark the anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation nine years ago – his first visit in three years.

His trip, which appears to have taken place the day before it was publicised, also included a trip to Mariupol, the city on the Black Sea coast laid under siege, virtually obliterated and annexed by the Russian army last year. As many as 25,000 residents died during the fight for the city. According to the Ukrainian authorities as much as 95 per cent of its buildings were destroyed by Russian bombardment – in recent months, Russia has begun reconstruction works. This was Putin’s first visit to the Donbass since invading Ukraine last year.

The Kremlin said that Putin ‘flew to Mariupol by helicopter’, before driving himself around the city by car, stopping at several locations including the local yacht club and the city’s partially rebuilt Philharmonic Hall. Footage released to state media shows Putin at the wheel of his car and striding through the lobby of the concert hall in a big puffer jacket.

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Time was also made in Putin’s agenda to meet with Mariupol residents. In footage released of the clearly highly orchestrated meeting, Putin stumbles across an adoring crowd of residents in the street of the city’s Nevsky district, who call him over to thank him, supposedly grateful for saving them.

The video is uncomfortable to watch: the residents’ slavish, weepy adoration is at odds with the terror and horror we know Mariupol’s residents experienced under siege. One woman, on the verge of tears, thanks Putin for making Mariupol ‘a little slice of heaven’. An old man in the crowd reveals he is just fifteen days younger than the president – after a lifetime of nothing, ‘now he has everything’ thanks to Putin.

Despite the videos being pre-recorded, the Russian state media failed to edit out the shout of a woman off-camera who, while Putin chats with the residents, yells, ‘This is all untrue! This is all for show!’ Just about audible on the footage, Putin’s entourage are seeing turning around, searching for where the cry came from; Putin barely flinches.

The Russian state media’s coverage also left out the fact that the Nevsky district Putin visited is the only one that has in any way been rebuilt since Russia occupied the city. The rest of Mariupol still lies in ruins. Reports in the independent anti-Kremlin media suggest that even those residents who have been given apartments in the district are struggling to move into them because they can’t afford to furnish them.

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Ukrainian reactions to Putin’s visit to Mariupol were unsurprisingly furious. ‘The criminal always returns to the crime scene,’ said Mikhail Podolyak, one of Volodymyr Zelensky’s advisors.

Putin has, in recent months, felt pressure to deliver gains on the battlefield, after months of military failure and stories of dire battlefield conditions filtering back to the home front. That the notoriously risk-averse Putin visited Mariupol at all, so close to the front, should be seen as an attempt to assert himself as a strong leader at home: the victor examining his spoils.

With Xi’s visit, Putin will be keen to portray himself as the king holding court this week. Regardless of how sincere China’s attempts to broker an end to the Ukraine war will prove to be, the fact Xi is visiting Moscow personally will provide the Kremlin with a boost to validate its aggressive war. The reality – that Putin increasingly needs to shore up justification domestically for an unjustifiable war – is quite different.

Source: World – The Spectator Australia