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Ukraine's Sentsov Says Fighting Against Putin Regime, Not Russia

Oleh Sentsov: "You need to understand that the problem is not in prisoners. The problem is the fact that prisoners exist because we have been attacked."

KYIV -- Oleh Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director who was held in Russian prisons for more than five years, has accused Russian authorities of wanting to "enslave" Ukraine, and he called on all Ukrainians to work to end the ongoing war in the eastern part of the country.

Speaking just 16 days after his return to Ukraine, Sentsov also told RFE/RL in an interview that for him the fight was not against Russia or Russians themselves, but against what he called President Vladimir Putin's regime.

"[When I say] fight, as I said, it means, in general, to work and struggle to counteract Putin's regime that wants, in the first place, to enslave Ukraine," he said in the September 23 interview.

"This means an end to the war in the Donbas, the return of our prisoners, the return of Crimea. They are all things that every Ukrainian is obliged to fight for. It does not mean that someone is obliged to go somewhere and blow up things. That is not it," he said.

A native of Crimea, Sentsov was a vocal opponent of Russia's seizure and annexation of the Ukrainian region in March 2014. The film director was arrested on May 11, 2014, and a Russian court convicted him the following August on terrorism charges and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

Human rights activists and Western governments repeatedly called on the Russian authorities to release Sentsov, saying his arrest and trial were politically motivated.

On September 7, Sentsov was released as part of a swap of dozens of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia. It was considered a major breakthrough for the two sides in the conflict that pits Ukrainian government forces against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The fighting has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since April 2014.

"I am not fighting against Russia. I am fighting against Putin's regime. This is not the same. These things should not be confused," Sentsov told RFE/RL.

"You need to understand that the problem is not in prisoners. The problem is the fact that prisoners exist because we have been attacked. That is, there is a specific issue of prisoners and a broader issue of the aggression against us. Without the aggression, there would not have been any prisoners," he said.

There's no definite figure for how many Ukrainians are being held in Russian prisons, though activists and reporters estimate the number to be in the dozens.

Senstov's first feature film, Gamer, debuted at a festival in Rotterdam in 2012, and at the time of the mass protests that roiled Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014, he was working on his second feature film, called Rhino.