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Zelenskyy talks tough, vows to end war with recapture of Crimea

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is vowing the war will not end until his country has retaken Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. His tough stance leaves little room for negotiations.

(CN) — In his latest tough video message to Ukrainians, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed to keep the war going until his country has reoccupied Crimea, the peninsula in the Black Sea that's played a pivotal role in Russia's military history.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine continued to see fierce and bloody fighting in eastern Donbas with new reports of slow advances by Russian troops.

The war has been raging for 168 days and left tens of thousands of soldiers on each side killed, potentially far more than 100,000. It is deemed the worst war in Europe since the end of World War II and threatens to escalate into an even bigger war as ever-more advanced Western weapons flow into Ukraine and Russia seeks to draw to its side China, Iran and other countries not aligned with NATO and the United States.

Zelenskyy delivered his uncompromising stance on Tuesday night only hours after an ammunition depot at a key airfield in Crimea exploded.

The explosion was highly significant because Russia has warned Ukraine and the United States that it would treat military strikes on Crimea as a red line.

Ukraine claimed that it struck the depot with long-range missiles, but Russia denied this and reports from Crimea, including video footage, provided support for Russia's version denying a missile strike.

By Wednesday, it remained unclear what caused the massive explosion that left at least 13 people dead and the surrounding area, including the Novofedorivka airfield, badly damaged. It was possible a Ukrainian drone attacked the depot or that it blew up due to human error.

Regardless, Zelenskyy used the explosion to bolster his government's pledges that Russian troops will be driven completely out of Ukraine. Military analysts, though, see this prospect as unrealistic any time soon unless Russia suffers a military collapse.

“Today, there is a lot of attention to the topic of Crimea and rightly so because Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up,” Zelenskyy said. “We will not forget that the Russian war against Ukraine began with the occupation of Crimea.”

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops stationed in Crimea as part of a long-term lease agreement for Russia's Black Sea Fleet to seize the peninsula.

The large peninsula, where ethnic Russians make up a majority of the 2 million population, quickly came under Moscow's control as Russian soldiers without any identifying symbols on their uniforms – dubbed the “little green men” by the press – took over bases, police stations and border checkpoints. Shortly afterwards, Russia organized a referendum and Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join Russia.

The Kremlin ordered the annexation after it accused the U.S. of being behind a “color revolution” that it said led to a coup d'etat against Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Russia claimed Crimea belonged to Russia and not Ukraine because of the peninsula's historical ties to imperial Russia and because its transfer in 1954 from the Soviet republic of Russia to that of Ukraine allegedly violated Soviet law.

The transfer took place under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was fond of Ukraine, and likely was done to facilitate the administration of Crimea, which was close to the rest of Ukraine.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the status of Crimea was contested. It remained in Ukraine, but Russia was allowed to maintain its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

Following the 2014 “Maidan Revolution” that replaced Yanukovych with a pro-Western and pro-NATO government, Russia feared losing its critically important naval base in Sevastopol and went ahead with the annexation. Most countries do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

The Kremlin's annexation was condemned by Western leaders as an unforgivable violation of international law. Russia was kicked out of the Group of Eight and came under a barrage of sanctions.

Crimea then became the opening chapter of a rift between Russia and the West that now seems unbridgeable in the near future. For example, this week calls were growing in the European Union to ban all Russian citizens from entering the bloc.

In his speech, Zelenskyy accused Russia of bringing “large-scale repression, environmental problems, economic hopelessness and war to Crimea.”

He argued that Russia's use of Crimea as a military base was a danger to the world.

“The presence of Russian occupiers in Crimea is a threat to the entire Europe and to global stability,” he said. “The Black Sea region cannot be safe as long as Crimea is occupied. There will be no stable and lasting peace in many countries on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as long as Russia is able to use our peninsula as its military base.”

Zelenskyy's statements leave little to no room for negotiations with Russia, which sees Crimea as crucial to its survival. Historically, Russia's imperial designs were centered on building a warm water sea port and it fought numerous wars on its march to take possession of territories on the Black Sea.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against the entire free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea with its liberation,” Zelenskyy said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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