The United States has once again condemned Russia's reunification with Crimea in 2014, vowing to maintain related sanctions until Moscow returns the strategic Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine.
US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner urged Russia on Thursday to immediately end its "occupation" of Crimea and accused Moscow of committing human rights violations there.
"The United States again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine," Toner said in an official statement.
"We call on Russia to cease its attempts to suppress freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion," he added.
Crimea declared independence from Ukraine on March 17, 2014 and formally applied to become part of Russia following a referendum, in which 96.8 percent of participants voted in favor of the move.
"The United States does not recognize Russia's 'referendum' of March 16, 2014, nor its attempted annexation of Crimea and continued violation of international law," said Toner.
Senior members of US President Donald Trump’s cabinet, including US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have publicly denounced Russian "occupation of the peninsula."
Trump, who has called for better relations between the Kremlin and the White House, said prior to his election victory that "The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were."
After Crimea rejoined Russia, an armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine when Kiev launched military operations to quell similar pro-Russia sentiments there. Kiev accuses Moscow of involvement in the conflict, a charge Russia has denied.
The US and its Western allies have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia over its reunification with Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis, which has killed about 10,000 people since it began in 2014.
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the possibility that Crimea could be returned to Ukraine under some sort of deal with the United States.