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'As befits a thief'; Putin makes surprise visit to occupied Mariupol, gets ready to host Xi: Ukraine live updates

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a weekend visit to the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, inspecting reconstruction work and visiting the home of at least one local resident, the Kremlin said in a statement Sunday.

Putin arrived Saturday night in the port city that has been under Russian control since May and was illegally annexed by Moscow in September.

"As befits a thief, Putin visited Ukrainian Mariupol, under the cover of night," the Ukraine Defense Ministry tweeted. "First, it is safer. Also, darkness allows him to highlight what he wants to show, and keeps the city his army completely destroyed and its few surviving inhabitants away from prying eyes."

Putin flew in by helicopter, and then drove through the city inspecting reconstruction work in several neighborhoods, the statement said. It was Putin's second trip to newly annexed territories, this time after visiting Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's illegal takeover of the Black Sea peninsula.

The news comes less than two days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, an official in his office responsible for children's rights. The court cited their alleged involvement in the unlawful deportation of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that as the civilized world announced the arrest warrants, "the murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins" of the city and its graves.

"The criminal always returns to the crime scene," Pololyak tweeted. "Cynicism & lack of remorse."

Developments:

►Putin, speaking on state television, said he did not launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine until 2022 because Russia's military and economy were not sufficiently prepared when Moscow invaded Crimea in 2014.

►A shortage of explosives in European Union countries, the result of spiking demand during the war, is limiting the bloc's ability to supply Ukraine with the ammunition it has requested, the Financial Times of London reported.

►The People’s Friendship University of Russia in Moscow has replaced a vice rector after an exhibition featured a Ukrainian flag. The exhibition, held last month, was devoted to national communities and featured a section on Ukrainian culture.

►Putin signed two bills into law in recent days that significantly increase fines and jail time for disparaging Russian forces in Ukraine – and for selling Russian arms to Ukraine or its supporters.

►The leader of the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigohzin, says Ukrainian forces are preparing to launch counteroffensives in five directions in mid-April. The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War says Prigohzin urged Russian forces to prepare by preserving ammunition and equipment.

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Putin ready to welcome his 'good old friend' Xi

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his appreciation for China's mediation attempts on the eve of hosting his "good old friend" Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader who will visit Moscow beginning Monday.

"We are grateful for the balanced line of (China) in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, for understanding their background and true causes,'' Putin said in an article the Kremlin said was written for a Chinese newspaper, according to Reuters. "We welcome China's willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis."

China and Russia have the common goal of wanting to reduce U.S. global influence, and weeks before the war began last year they pledged a partnership with "no limits.''

The Biden administration has warned Beijing not to provide the Kremlin weapons to use in Ukraine. China professes neutrality in the conflict while condemning Western sanctions and the U.S. role in assisting Ukraine.

Zelenskyy sees arrest warrant for Putin as 'a turning point'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for Putin, calling it "a turning point'' during his nightly video address Sunday.

"(He has) responsibility for every strike on Ukraine, for every destroyed life, for every deported Ukrainian child,'' said Zelenskyy, who three times in his update referred to Russia as "the evil state.''

In Friday's announcement, the ICC accused Putin of being personally responsible for the abductions of thousands of Ukrainian children. It was the first time the court issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

"The evil state will be held accountable for every act of terror against Ukrainians,'' Zelenskyy said.

Ukraine lobbies for expedited EU membership

A Ukraine official will discuss her nation's progress toward meeting seven criteria for European Union membership at a meeting of EU affairs ministers Monday as Ukraine scrambles to meet a self-imposed but unlikely two-year deadline for membership.

Olha Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European integration, said Kyiv will have completed implementation of most of the criteria ahead of a progress report likely to be presented in May. The Ukraine parliament will have passed a law fulfilling the crucial criteria of media reform by that time, she said.

"The concept of reforming law enforcement agencies has been prepared and must be approved by the president's decision," she added, telling European Pravda "we are close (for) anti-corruption, law enforcement and judicial."

The government plans to address the issue of oligarch influence through anti-monopoly and anti-corruption measures – without drawing up a controversial "oligarch register," she said.

"In times of war, naming and shaming, i.e., naming certain persons who are subject to this law, is not a priority," she said.

Poland and some other neighbors of Ukraine are strongly supporting a quick process for Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said last year it could take decades.

Russia facing big losses of soldiers, equipment almost daily

Ukraine defense forces claimed to "eliminate" more than 700 Russian troops in a single day on Saturday, also destroying 21 tanks and 25 other combat armored vehicles. On Sunday, Ukraine reported that Russia had carried out more than a dozen airstrikes of various types, hitting a residential building in the Vasylivsky district and civilian infrastructure objects in Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and other regions.

"There are dead and wounded, high-rise buildings, private residential buildings and schools have been damaged," the Ukraine military said, issuing a warning that the threat of probability of strikes throughout Ukraine "remains high."

Mariupol remains symbol of Ukrainian resistance

The Mariupol that Putin visited bears little resemblance to the city of 13 months ago. Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in the bitterly contested Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, was left in ruin by Russia's unrelenting bombing in the early weeks of the war.

A Russian airstrike slammed into a maternity hospital less than two weeks after Russian troops invaded its neighbor, and a week later about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence suggested that the real death toll could have been closer to 600.

The fierce battle for the city finally ended when the a small group of Ukrainian fighters surrendered after holding out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol. Their determination symbolized Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.

The city, formerly home to more than 430,000 people, has been under direct Russian control since May.

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Russian official: Mariupol annexation is permanent

Speaking to the state RIA agency Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its devastated downtown by the end of the year.

“People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is underway, people started actively returning,” Khusnulin told RIA.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine live updates: Putin makes surprise visit to Mariupol