Potential GOP presidential candidate says US support for Ukraine is a “clear vital national interest”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, drives with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin during their visit to Mariupol, Ukraine, in a video released on March 19. (Pool/AP)

Parts of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine were “spontaneous,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists during a call Sunday.

Footage released by Russian authorities showed Putin visiting Mariupol and meeting seemingly surprised residents.

According to Peskov, Putin spoke to local residents of an apartment complex and decided to visit one of the apartments, per the invitation of one of the residents. 

“Initially, the president only had planned to visit the residential complex. Putin’s exchange with residents and visiting an apartment were not planned. It was absolutely spontaneous,” Peskov claimed.

Peskov said the trip happened overnight. It is not clear exactly when it took place, although on Saturday Putin visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of its annexation.

“There was a very compact group of cars with the president. In one of them, he himself was a driver. And the cars drove around Mariupol — and the president drove around the city, looked at everything — completely adhering to all the traffic rules,” Peskov said.

Peskov added that Putin’s trip to a military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don was also not planned. The president attended one of the military report sessions there, the spokesperson said.

The Russian president’s overnight visit to Mariupol marks his first trip to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region since the start of Russia’s invasion.

Some key context: Putin and the Kremlin are known for creating carefully choreographed outings designed, in part, to showcase the president’s strength.

Ukrainian officials have slammed the visit as a cynical ploy and akin to a criminal returning to the crime scene “under the cover of night,” using darkness to hide signs that Mariupol was subject to some of the war’s worst atrocities.

News of the trip comes shortly after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova, stemming from an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.

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