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Ukrainian Leader Tries To Put Spotlight Back On Russian-Occupied Crimea

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to Ukrainian journalists at a press event on Zmiyiniy Island in the Black Sea on August 19.

ZMIYINIY ISLAND, Ukraine -- President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has lamented that the crisis in Crimea has fallen from global attention, and he pledged to "raise from the knees" the fate of the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia seven years ago.

In an interview with Ukrainian media, including RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Zelenskiy said he also wants to raise awareness of residents, including Crimean Tatars and others, who have been detained or prosecuted by the region's Russian-backed administration.

"A big victory for us is to raise this issue from its knees, which simply does not exist in the [media] landscape," Zelenskiy said in the interview which took place on August 9 on Zmiyiniy Island, a rocky Black Sea islet some 300 kilometers from the shores of Crimea.

Zelenskiy spoke days before his government convenes a multinational meeting in Kyiv featuring representatives of 40 countries. The gathering, called Crimea Platform, is set to coincide with events to mark 30 years of Ukrainian independence.

WATCH: Zelenskiy Takes Aim At Russia Ahead Of International Meeting About Crimea

Zelenskiy Takes Aim At Russia Ahead Of International Meeting About Crimea
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Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by more than 100 countries. A month later, war broke out in eastern Ukraine, pitting Ukrainian government forces against Kremlin-backed separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people to date.

Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by Russian authorities targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.

Persecuted Tatars

Zelenskiy said many around the world knew of the fate of Oleh Sentsov, the filmmaker who served five years in a Russian prison before being released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange.

But Zelenskiy argued that most people in the West were unaware of the plight of others in Crimea who face persecution, such as Server Mustafayev, who was among a group of seven Crimean Tatars handed lengthy prison terms by a Russian court in September 2020.

All were found guilty of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that is banned in Russia but is legal in Ukraine.

Despite international pressure, Russia has rejected all talk of returning Crimea to Ukraine; Moscow spent billions of dollars building a massive bridge linking the peninsula directly to the Russian mainland. Russia's Black Sea naval fleet is based at the historic Crimea port of Sevastopol.

Still, Kyiv is hoping the Crimea Platform meeting in Kyiv will provide a "mechanism" to pressure Moscow, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Asked if he was disappointed that only 40 countries would attend the Kyiv forum, given that more than 100 refuse to recognize Moscow's seizure of Crimea, Zelenskiy argued that this was an "incorrect comparison."

Russia constructed the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia within a few years of seizing the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. (file photo)
Russia constructed the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia within a few years of seizing the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. (file photo)

"All these countries, 100 and more, support Crimea (as part of Ukraine); they continue to support us, and that number has not dropped," Zelenskiy told reporters. "The question is whether these 100 countries will support us with sanctions [against Russia]; they are ready to support us with statements, that 'We understand,' that they consider it an occupation, this annexation, but nothing more."

Economic Sanctions

Following the annexation, the United States and the European Union, and other Western nations hit Russia with economic sanctions, as well as for funding and supplying weaponry to separatists in eastern Ukraine. Those sanctions remain in place.

Kyiv, which maintains sizable cross-border trade with Moscow, has announced several rounds of sanctions on Russian persons and entities. In March, Kyiv imposed financial penalties on dozens of Russian officials and organizations, including a raft of firms doing business in Crimea.

"There are states -- the United States of America, Germany, France, Great Britain -- that can really, decisively act against certain officials of the Russian Federation or temporary officials of Crimea with their sanctions, and if they have something, somewhere abroad," Zelenskiy said. "We are working with them so that they introduce such sanctions, [that] they are effective."

The Crimea meeting also comes as Zelenskiy prepares to travel to Washington, D.C. for his first meeting with President Joe Biden -- something the Zelenskiy government hopes will serve as a major sign of support from the White House.

During the meeting, Biden is expected to declare "unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression" in the Donbas and Crimea regions," according to press reports.

Nord Stream 2

Energy issues are also expected to top the agenda, including Nord Stream 2, the Russian natural gas pipeline which bypasses Ukraine's transit network, depriving Kyiv of transit fees. The Biden administration earlier this year refused to block final completion of the undersea pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany.

In July, the United States and Germany reached agreement to allow the completion of Nord Stream 2 despite concerns it will undermine the energy security of Ukraine and other Eastern and Central European countries.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is scheduled to travel to Kyiv on August 22, told Zelenskiy last month that Ukraine would remain a transit route for Russian gas even after Nord Stream 2 is built.

During the interview, Zelenskiy also mentioned plans to beef up Ukraine's naval presence in the Black Sea region, with plans to build a "big flotilla by 2035."

"It will include corvettes, military vessels, and small submarines, as well as naval bases," Zelenskiy said, saying that the EU, Britain, and United States all back such plans.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Hanna Andriyevska