KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed on Wednesday to end Russia's occupation of Crimea, and deflected criticism of Kyiv's handling of a grinding counteroffensive.
Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014 in a move not recognised by most other countries, and has occupied other parts of Ukraine in the south and east since its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Ukrainian troops began their counteroffensive to regain lost territory in early June, but progress has been slow as they encountered vast Russian minefields and trenches, particularly in the southeast.
"Crimea will be de-occupied like all other parts of Ukraine that are unfortunately still under the occupier," Zelenskiy said in a defiant speech to an international conference on Crimea in Kyiv.
He said Ukrainian troops were advancing in the counteroffensive but set no time frame for retaking Crimea or other occupied territory.
The New York Times on Wednesday quoted U.S. and other Western officials as saying Ukraine was struggling to break through heavily defended Russian lines in the south because it had too many troops in the wrong places, including in the east.
Asked about Ukraine's military movements at a press conference following his speech, Zelenskiy outlined the risks that would be involved in moving forces away from the eastern front where, he said, Russia has about 200,000 troops.
"The proposal is this. Let's take our forces, the armed forces from there, and transfer them somewhere," he said, and went on to list towns and cities that could as a result become more vulnerable to Russian attacks.
"I think, after that it will be the following. A couple of days - Sloviansk, Kramatorsk; then they will go to Pavlohrad (...) I believe that is exactly the kind of hope they have. (Then) Kharkiv."
"We will not give up either Kharkiv, nor Donbas, nor Pavlohrad, nor Dnipro," he said.
Russia shows no sign of abandoning Crimea, which it has used as a platform to launch missile strikes on Ukrainian targets. Moscow says a referendum held after Russian forces seized the peninsula showed Crimeans genuinely want to be part of Russia. The referendum is not recognised by most countries.
Zelenskiy said that once Crimea was back under Ukrainian control, it would be part of Ukraine's economy and therefore part of the global economy.
"Today we are taking the first such economic step. We are signing the first document with companies that are ready to enter Crimea following Ukraine," he said.
He gave no details of the document but named several companies that he said were ready to invest in Crimea following after the end of Russian control, including Ryanair, Vodafone, Nokia and EPAM.
(Reporting by Anna Pruchnicka, Editing by Timothy Heritage)