Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to Mariupol, the Ukrainian city all but destroyed by his invading army last year, in an apparent show of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant accusing the Russian president of war crimes.

State television showed Putin arriving at the port city by helicopter in the early hours of Sunday. Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, claimed the entire trip to Mariupol had been planned “spontaneously” and said Putin had driven around the frontline city without a full motorcade escort, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.

It was the president’s first trip to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, including four provinces Moscow is attempting to annex, since the full-scale invasion of the country began last year.

Putin has largely avoided visiting the frontline, remaining mostly in Moscow, where even his top officials’ access to him is highly restricted, and holding meetings online.

After visiting Mariupol, Putin made a rare public appearance in Rostov-na-Donu in southern Russia, where he heard a report from chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov, the main commander of the Ukraine campaign.

The trip to Mariupol, part of four provinces claimed by Russia — although it does not control the whole territory — came a day after Putin made his first visit to Crimea, the peninsula he annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The unannounced trip underscores Putin’s determination to press on with the faltering invasion despite Russia’s huge casualties, economic isolation, and the ICC warrant, which accuses him of “individual criminal responsibility” for the forced transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine.

Kyiv says more than 16,000 children have been abducted during the war, including more than 1,000 from Mariupol, which Russian forces virtually razed to the ground after a brutal three-month siege.

Putin, who has not commented on the charges, and children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, could face arrest if they travel to any country that is part of the ICC.

In the state television footage, Putin was seen driving a black jeep through the streets of Mariupol accompanied by Marat Khusnullin, a top Russian official, who showed him Russia’s efforts to rebuild the city.

He was taken to Mariupol’s philharmonic concert hall, where Russia originally planned to hold show trials last year accusing Ukrainian prisoners of war crimes before scrapping the idea.

He was also shown speaking to people state TV said were local residents who told the president they had been “praying for him” and thanked Russia for rebuilding their apartments after their homes were destroyed.

Ukrainian officials have said at least 22,000 of Mariupol’s prewar civilian population of half a million died in the siege, and estimate that the full toll could be many times higher.

But speaking on Sunday, Khusnullin said residents had been flocking back to Mariupol thanks to Russia’s reconstruction efforts. “People have started to come back. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” he said.

He vowed to finish rebuilding the heavily damaged city centre by the end of the year. He claimed that the destruction in Mariupol had been caused by retreating Ukrainian forces.

Standing by his side, Putin added: “They’re Nazis. Decent people won’t do that.”

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