President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, seeking to rally anti-American sentiment in Europe and across the world, lashed out anew at the United States on Friday, calling it a fading power that treats its allies as colonies, and said the West was falsely blaming its economic woes on the war in Ukraine.
“We all hear about so-called Putin inflation in the West,” Mr. Putin said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual business conference once known as “Russia’s Davos,” seeming to refer to President Biden’s efforts to blame Russian aggression for what he calls a “Putin price hike” that is hurting American consumers.
“When I see this, I always think: Who’s this meant for, this stupidity?” Mr. Putin said. “For someone who doesn’t know how to read or write.”
Mr. Putin spoke as the European Commission on Friday formally recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status to become a member of the European Union, the first step in a long and arduous road that may have no immediate impact on the war, but could give the country a symbolic morale boost.
The commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, also recommended candidate status for Moldova — which applied for membership soon after Ukraine, spurred by concerns about Russia’s threats in the region — but not for neighboring Georgia, which was deemed not ready for E.U. candidacy.
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who opened Friday’s meeting of E.U. commissioners in Brussels wearing a blue shirt and a yellow blazer, Ukraine’s national colors. “We want them to live with us the European dream.”
Ukraine’s accession into the bloc could take years. The European Commission has made Ukraine’s candidate status conditional on seven main overhauls in the country’s judicial system and government. Even while fighting the Russian army, Ukraine will have to guarantee an independent judiciary, weed out high-level corruption, adopt laws on the media, limit the influence of oligarchs, and improve legislation on money laundering and protecting minorities, the commission said.
In some ways, the war appears to have eased these tasks. The status of the oligarchs has plummeted, as some have fled and others have lost assets and revenue in the fighting, while the economy has become more dependent on foreign aid than on oligarch-dominated commodities exports. The security services, once in part controlled behind the scenes by these business titans, have solidified their positions as institutions defending the country as a whole, not business interests.
In other ways, the war has created new obstacles for Ukraine’s European aspirations beyond the obvious threat of the country being conquered by Russia. Under martial law, opposition television stations were excluded from a national cable system. If the war and martial law persist for months or years, it’s unlikely that regularly scheduled elections will be held.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
“The government deserves only applause” for winning Ukraine’s long-sought acceptance as a candidate for E.U. membership, Volodymyr Ariyev, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament in the opposition European Solidarity party, said in an interview. “But we need to maintain our development in a democratic way, or we could lose our candidate status.”
The ultimate decision to make Moldova and Ukraine formal candidates for E.U. membership will be made by European Union leaders in Brussels next week. The commission said it would assess Ukraine’s progress at the end of the year.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed the commission’s recommendation, saying it would help his country stave off Russia. “It’s the 1st step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our Victory closer,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Putin’s remarks to the economic forum were delayed by over an hour after the Kremlin cited “large-scale” distributed denial-of-service cyberattacks on the conference’s computer systems. The cyberattack came after IT Army of Ukraine, a “hacktivist” group behind previous attacks on Russian websites, had flagged the event as a target.
Mr. Putin appeared onstage for more than three hours, in his most extended public appearance since he ordered the Ukraine invasion in February. But he did little to clarify his war aims, reprising his descriptions of Ukrainian territory as historically belonging to Russia while avoiding the even more hostile rhetoric of other Russian officials.
“Only the people who live there will determine their future,” Mr. Putin said of the territory in eastern Ukraine that Russia is capturing, leaving open the question of whether he will seek to annex it. “And we will respect any choice they make.”
Ukrainian officials have heatedly dismissed the legitimacy of any putative referendums organized by the Kremlin and its proxies.
The chief executives of blue-chip Western companies used to flock to the St. Petersburg conference, but this year guests from Europe and the United States were few. Instead, it was a small delegation from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that made headlines in the Russian news media, while the leaders of Egypt and China recorded video greetings that were played at the plenary session after Mr. Putin’s speech.
But even at the session, which appeared aimed at underlining Russia’s global connections despite its Western isolation, the limits of its friendships became apparent. Mr. Putin shared the stage with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that has been a close ally of Russia but has said it will not violate Western sanctions against Russia.
Asked about his attitudes toward what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, Mr. Tokayev chose his words carefully, refusing to offer any support. He said that as with the Russian-backed breakaway enclaves of Georgia, Kazakhstan would not recognize the “quasi-state territories” that Russia is propping up in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin, relaxed and frequently cracking a smile, did not give the appearance of a wartime president. Instead, he focused on the economy, alternating between the idea that Russia could easily replace Western imports and investment, and the claim that Russians could temporarily do without such comforts.
When the session’s host, the Russian state television executive Margarita Simonyan, presented Mr. Putin with a Russian juice box that was white because of a shortage of imported ink, he said that such details should be the least of people’s worries.
“What’s the most important for us?” Mr. Putin asked. “To be independent, sovereign and assure our future development now for the following generations? Or to have packaging today?”
Mr. Putin spent most of the session pushing the idea that Russia could still flourish despite Western sanctions. He promised environmental and regulatory reforms — such as businesspeople being jailed less frequently by corrupt officials — as well as government initiatives to support Russian companies.
“Russia is entering the approaching epoch as a powerful, sovereign country,” Mr. Putin said. “We will certainly use the new, colossal opportunities that this era is opening in front of us and will become even stronger.”
Turning to the European Union’s sanctions against Russia, Mr. Putin claimed the bloc had acted on orders from Washington despite the fallout for its own economy. “The European Union has completely lost its political sovereignty,” Mr. Putin said.
But he said Russia would have nothing against Ukraine joining the bloc. The E.U. is “not a military organization,” like NATO, he said, and it is “the sovereign decision of any country” whether to seek to join it.
“We were never against this — we were always against military expansion into Ukrainian territory because it threatens our security,” Mr. Putin said. “But as for economic integration, please, for God’s sake, it’s their choice.”
Russia, in fact, opposed a trade agreement with the European Union that Ukraine was negotiating in 2013. Ukraine then backed away from the pending deal under Russian pressure, a move that sparked the country’s pro-Western uprising the following year.
In a surprise move intended to show further solidarity with Ukraine, Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, on Friday paid his second visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, one day after the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Romania had met there.
Having recently survived a no-confidence vote among his own lawmakers, Mr. Johnson might have hoped that the visit would boost his popularity. He promised a new package of help with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.
Britain, Mr. Johnson said at a news conference, would help the Ukrainian military “to do what I believe Ukrainians yearn to do, and that is to expel the aggressor from Ukraine.”
Reporting was contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Oleksandr Chubko, Adam Satariano, Stephen Castle, Tess Felder, Monika Pronczuk, and Dan Bilefsky.