«We'll defend what’s ours with weapons in hand!» Long interview with Volodymyr Zelenskyy on returning occupied Crimea to Ukraine

14 августа 2021, 18:00
Партнерский проект
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi gives an interview to Crimean journalists on Zmiiny Island (Фото:Elif Bekirova)

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi gives an interview to Crimean journalists on Zmiiny Island (Фото:Elif Bekirova)

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy shares with Crimean journalists his plans to kickstart the process of returning Crimea, reveals the main purpose of the Crimean Platform, and explains when Ukraine will feel like a real maritime state

This material was prepared as part of the «How We Will Get Crimea Back» project — an initiative of Ukrainian journalists from Crimea. It’s goal is to find instruments and solutions for the de-occupation and reintegration of the peninsula.

After a 40-minute helicopter ride from Odesa, journalists get to the Ukrainian island of Zmiinyi. The isle is temporarily the southernmost point of the country to which the Ukrainian state has access. Crimea is not visible from here, but the island itself is very reminiscent of Crimean landscapes.

Видео дня

Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky on Zmiiny Island - video version

Our conversation takes place immediately after the naval exercises and the president’s nomination for senior military ranks. The head of state sees symbolism in the interview site. Despite its small size, Zmiinyi is a strategic island. Whoever owns it, controls the oil shelf at sea. In a recent article, Vladimir Putin mentioned the island, hinting at territorial claims. That is why military exercises here are so important.

«We will defend what’s ours with weapons in hand!» Zelenskyy explains emotionally, hiding from the midday sun under a canopy made of camouflage.

This is the first interview in seven years of occupation of Crimea in which the Ukrainian leader talks to Crimean journalists about the intentions and plans to return the peninsula. It is given specially for «How We Will Get Crimea Back' project.

— We are meeting with you today on the Ukrainian island of Zmiyinyi. This is probably not a coincidence, so why here?

 — Definitely not a coincidence. This small island — like any other of our territories — is Ukrainian land, and we will defend it with all our might. Today you had the opportunity to observe military exercises here, we devote a lot of attention to them. You know that we have an army development programme that consists of three stages. We are actively conducting them and it is already clear that we are able to protect every Ukrainian region, airport, city, and Zmiinyi Island as well. Because we are aware of Russia’s interests, we see what plans the West-2021 joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises have. We are ready for various steps on the part of these states.

— Representatives of 30 countries agreed to come to the opening of the Crimean Platform. Given that in 2014 the resolution against the occupation of Crimea was supported by about 100 countries, is this a satisfactory outcome?

 — This is not a very meaningful comparison. All these countries — 100 or more — that supported Crimea, still do. It’s not like there are fewer of them now. They support us with sanctions, they are ready to state that what happened to Crimea is an occupation. And we are grateful to them for their position.

— This is a satisfactory result for Ukraine, but what would be a good result for you personally?

 — This is more than just a result today. Currently, it is hard to say whether it will be a victory, either big or small. Let’s wait until all the representatives and leaders of the countries come to the Crimean Platform.

Secondly, let’s wait for the outcome of this summit. Thirdly, a great victory is to raise the Crimean issue, which simply does not exist now, even in the Ukrainian information space.

The Crimean Platform is the first single institutional platform that will work not once a year but every day in the office of the Crimean Platform. The most important issues will be considered there, above all, humanitarian.

Currently, Crimea resembles an aircraft carrier. This is no longer the pearl of Ukrainian land by the sea. Today, it is a militarized peninsula of the Russian Federation, with a daily increase in armaments, a reduction in the indigenous population, a decrease in the natural, ecological, touristic attractiveness. That’s what it is about.

What can be done? You have to raise the alarm. This requires a bell tower and a pair of hands. I think that before the Crimean Platform, there was no bell to sound, but people and hands were always there, they just needed to be shown what bells to ring, aside from Facebook posts: «We feel sorry for our Crimea, but we will return».

But now there will be a Crimean Platform, which will make every Crimean topic acute and relevant, it will ring the very bell I mentioned.

Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine
Фото: Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine

— But it is also important for us to do our homework at the political level, to adopt about 20 laws concerning Crimea, starting with the law on the abolition of the free economic zone of Crimea.

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 — We have repealed this law.

— Mr. President, but you never signed it.

 — I sign everything that is brought to me. Frankly speaking, I plan to sign many of these laws during the Crimean Platform. My idea was to involve other leaders in the affairs of Crimea. We signed the law on indigenous peoples without waiting for the event. I appreciate that a million questions will arise: «Why not like this, why so slow?» Everything will be signed and everything is in the process of being signed.

— A question on political prisoners. Recently, the wife of Vladyslav Yesypenko, a journalist imprisoned in Crimea, appealed to you for help in the release of her husband. More than 100 Ukrainian political prisoners were imprisoned in Crimea. Most of them are Crimean Tatars, who were also imprisoned on political grounds. Could you tell us at what stage today is the issue of returning Crimean political prisoners? Are lists being formed? Who is on these lists?

 — All lists have been formed thanks to the work of our ombudsperson. The issue of political prisoners is most important for us; unfortunately, it has stalled completely. As things stand, I do not see another way out except for direct negotiations with the Russian president about Crimean prisoners. Perhaps we will be able to work out new solutions during the Crimean Platform.

I have a list of persistent issues that I discuss with all leaders regardless of the format of the meeting. I always raise the issue of Crimean captives. Unfortunately, it is Russia’s turn to act, the side that ties political prisoners to the occupation of Crimea. For the Kremlin, these people are not Ukrainian political prisoners, since they do not recognize that Crimea was occupied.

The Russians separate the lists of those who are in the occupied Donbas, and the lists of those of our people who are in Crimea or already in Russia. On the contrary, we combine these lists, and we are discussing the issue of exchanging all for all — including the Crimeans. But, sometimes not only Russia but other states too prefer not to raise the issue of Crimea and consolidate it with the issue of de-occupation of Ukrainian territories.

Of course, we have to work more at the level of European courts, where we do not do enough.

Also, I urge the leaders of those countries that support us to persist in their work and put pressure on the Russian president. Today, the Russian head of state can easily return our captives to us, even if he does not consider them political prisoners. We are ready for exchanges and any other steps to return our Crimeans.

— Perhaps it would make sense to impose separate sanctions for political repressions in Crimea. Repression is becoming more widespread, and people detained in Crimea for political reasons are being tortured in prisons. How can we influence this, if not through sanctions?

 — The issue of sanctions is complicated. I believe that Ukraine should impose sanctions where they have a real impact and appeal to countries that really affect certain businesses with their sanctions: on the real estate of the Russian officials involved in the repression, on their bank accounts abroad. This would make sense.

There are countries — the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom — which can, with their sanctions, effectively and decisively counteract certain Russian officials and temporary Crimean officials who have possessions abroad. We work with them on such sanctions, they are effective. But if we impose sanctions against the interim leaders, for example, by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council on a daily basis, and which do not harm them at all, I believe that we would be simply discrediting the National Security and Defense Council.

We have imposed many personal sanctions against the Russian military. I ask myself: have we sanctioned them? We have. We showed that we have a common position with other countries that this is unacceptable. But constantly imposing sanctions on those who are not affected by these sanctions — I believe this is not effective.

— On top of the political prisoners, their relatives need help too. There is an initiative, «Bizim Balalar» (‘Our Children'), formed in Crimea, which takes care of the children of political prisoners. There are now 190 such children, and 30 of them need special care because they are ill. The whole world is raising money for this initiative. Can the state create any mechanism to support the relatives and children of these political prisoners?

 — I am sure that we can create the necessary mechanisms. I would have all the answers prepared if I knew all the questions, all the problems that the Crimean people have. We will note this one down. When it came to higher education, we gave children from the temporarily occupied territories, including Crimea, the opportunity to enter without an external examination, without any exams.

You are welcome at our universities! We will do our best to give them a place to live and support them. We are ready to support 190 children. Please provide us with all the details; we are ready.

Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine
Фото: Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine

— The law on indigenous peoples was recently adopted. How will this law help free Crimea, in your opinion?

 — The law on indigenous peoples is one of those laws that tell the Crimean Tatars that this is their land, not through hints but concrete actions. I believe that it unites people who live there, who understand that this is their land, and it is not just the president who is talking about it, but the law has already been passed. That is why such steps are important so that the core of people who consider Crimea their land and part of Ukraine does not disintegrate.

The local occupation authorities and the Russian Federation, in particular, are doing their best to draw a line in Crimean society to divide these people. On the contrary, we must do everything to make people understand that only in Ukraine will Crimea be happy.

This law does not provide Crimean Tatars with food, accommodation, anything material, and so on. This law says that this is their land, they are not intruders. When a Crimean Tatar walks down a Crimean street, he walks down his street, and if a Russian citizen walks on the opposite side, he is the tourist and the guest in a foreign land.

— The next logical step is to recognise the Crimean Tatar national territorial autonomy. We know that the steps to this end have already been made by the Constitutional Commission in 2018. Are you ready for this step, is it well-timed?

 — This is a very important step that the Crimean Platform should take: to study the legislation, changes to the legislation, and propose to the president of Ukraine a bill already agreed with the indigenous population of Crimea.

I know that under the previous government there were some developments. Were they agreed with my office? No. Were they agreed with the Crimean Tatar society? I do not know. I’m not sure how decent this bill is. We need to work on all this. The law you are talking about is one of those bills that had piled up, now there are fewer of them, and they will decrease in number with each passing day of the Crimean Platform. I’m sure.

— It is important for the state to implement a policy of transitional justice, especially since the presidential commission on legal reform has already developed such a project and submitted it to the president’s office six months ago. What has become of this document?

 — Yes, this vector is in the process of formation. My Representative for Crimea, Anton Korynevych, proposed a concept, and now it is being finalised, it has not vanished. We had a big meeting in the office, not only with lawyers, but also with other representatives, and I can say that we have a strong team, which includes Andriy Yermak, Dmytro Kuleba, Oleksii Reznikov, and Anton Korynevych. It is Oleksii Reznikov who has the main responsibility for the policy on Crimea and Donbas, both within Minsk and outside the Minsk Protocol.

— How do we win people back over?

 — As for Crimea, I believe that this is the question of territory. It’s true that the Russian Federation has been manipulating Crimeans for a long time — both with the «passportisation» and television, as well as with visits by certain people. I remember from the times of Kvartal (95 film studio — ed.) — we were the only Ukrainian stars. However, the locals still did not consider themselves Russians, saying that they were Crimeans. While Russian stars have always said: «It's nice to be visiting you in Crimea.»

Therefore, the situation with the mental return is as follows: it seems to me that they understood what had happened and saw what would happen in Crimea without Ukraine. In general, people want to see something good in the future.

Therefore, I am sure that no mental changes will be necessary. Ukrainian authorities will be gladly received in Crimea. Gladly, believe me. Even those sporting the «Octobrist badge» deep inside, who hid it somewhere, will still be happy. Because life will return to Crimea with Ukraine.

— The de-facto occupation of Crimea has also turned into the occupation of the Black and Azov Seas for us. We need to go to great lengths to protect Ukraine from the sea. What is the state of the Ukrainian navy nowadays?

 — Yes, the issue of Crimea is also a matter of unblocking the Black and Azov Sea coasts. We are working on it. Our goal is to build a great fleet by 2035. It is far in the future, but you and I will be able to see the results of the first stage on August 24 this year.

Our task is to build a professional, powerful fleet capable of repelling anyone. We are a peaceful state, but we must be ready for any moves. We are preparing to unblock the Black Sea region. This task was given by me personally and was supported by our army.

I understand that we cannot wait 20 years until we have the infrastructure for full-fledged shipbuilding, so we will start building a fleet, including in other countries. At the same time, we are building infrastructure in Ukraine to stay on top of this process. There will be corvettes, there will be military boats, there will be small submarines — all this will definitely materialise. The same applies to military bases, construction of the first will soon begin in Berdiansk.

In this large-scale project, we count on the support of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We have already received full support from the United Kingdom. The issue of strengthening the Ukrainian navy is part of our forthcoming meeting with the president of the United States, as well as part of the agenda of the Crimean Platform and our talks with other states. We feel that Russia is trying to put pressure on other countries helping Ukraine, even by calling on them not to take part in the Crimean Platform.

Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine
Фото: Press Service of the Office of the President of Ukraine

— Due to the threats to the freedom of navigation, for a year and a half a question of the permanent stay of NATO states' ships in the Black Sea has been on the agenda, as well as the possible escort of merchant ships in the Sea of ​​Azov. Are these negotiations ongoing? Generally speaking, do you feel like a president of a maritime state?

 — We have just discussed the stages of the formation of the Ukrainian Naval Forces. I am sure that Ukrainian society will see the Ukrainian navy, and then I will feel like the president you’ve just mentioned.

Concerning the escort of our ships by the countries of the alliance. You can see that every year we increase both our training and the presence of NATO members' ships in our waters. This is not just about Sea Breeze, although I think you have seen all these exercises. From now on, it is a constant work and cooperation of our ministry of defence with the United States and European countries. We also have relevant agreements in this respect with both Turkey and the United Kingdom.

— Finally, let’s dream a bit. Let’s imagine that Crimea is de-occupied tomorrow. Where will you go first?

 — Oh, I have a lot of favorite places there. I want to go to the sea, to our Black Sea, I really do. Cape Fiolent, then Kastropol, then drink a glass of «Novyi Svit"' sparkling wine.

— And Gurzuf?

 — Gurzuf is beautiful, yes, but it was always too posh for me. We never traveled there, it was very expensive. In reality, our family had a modest living, and I never went to Crimea as a child, but I fell in love with it during my student years. I mean our Ukrainian Crimea, which is not Soviet at all, as the Russian media write. Most Ukrainians remember it as Ukrainian, 30 years of our independence is enough for that.

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