President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to occupied Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’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 visit signaled the Kremlin’s determination to continue with business as usual, less than 24 hours after the International Criminal Court accused Putin of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest. The court said he bore criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, thousands of whom have been sent to Russia since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. Russian officials dismissed the court’s announcement as meaningless and vowed not to cooperate.
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 was unlikely to change his behavior, even if it punctured the aura of impunity that has surrounded him.
But Russia — which is scheduled to receive China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for a state visit beginning Monday — also agreed on 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 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, 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.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said on Twitter that the agreement had been extended for 120 days, and thanked the United Nations and Turkey for mediating.
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.
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. This past 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.
On Monday, Putin is scheduled to host Xi, China’s top leader, in Russia for the start of a state visit. The trip by Xi, whose government has not commented on the ICC 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 also issued more draconian penalties intended to silence war critics in Russia, signing a law that criminalizes speaking out against anyone fighting in Ukraine, including volunteers and others “facilitating the Russian Armed Forces’ missions.” 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 that 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.