MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a scathing critique of the United States Friday in what the Kremlin billed as a major speech — blaming the U.S. rather than Russian military actions in Ukraine for fostering crises in global relations, food security, inflation and trade.
Americans "think of themselves as exceptional. And if they think they're exceptional, that means everyone else is second class," Putin said in a more than 70-minute marquee address at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
In contrast, Putin presented Russia as part of a new global order willing to challenge an America still clinging to its past status as the world's lone superpower.
"Nothing lasts forever," Putin said.
"Only strong and sovereign governments can speak their minds in this newborn world order — either that or they're destined to remain colonies" of the U.S. without rights, he later added.
The war in Ukraine and Western sanctions also figured heavily in the Russian leader's speech, which was delayed by more than an hour after a cyberattack disrupted the security systems.
The Kremlin labels the conflict in Ukraine a "special military operation" and forbids calling it a war or invasion under penalty of law.
On the same day that the European Commission recommended that Ukraine be granted EU candidacy, Putin said he had no objection to Ukraine's bid for membership. "The EU isn't a military organization, so Russia is not against Ukraine joining the EU," he said.
Putin insisted Russia would meet "all its goals" in Ukraine — which he notably defined as "freedom for the Donbas," the eastern Ukrainian region where Russian troops are locked in fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces. Putin had initially pursued regime change in Kyiv.
Putin also repeated earlier assertions that a "blitzkrieg" of Western sanctions had failed to destroy the Russian economy, as hoped by the West. The Kremlin's own economic development minister, however, expects the country's economy will shrink by 7.8% this year, and the central bank chief said it's unlikely to bounce back soon.
But in Putin's view, sanctions primarily damaged the very countries issuing them. He pointed to the European Union in particular as having committed "economic suicide" by cutting back on Russian natural gas and oil imports that much of the EU relies on.
Putin acknowledged that Western sanctions presented Russia with challenges — including a sudden lack of some consumer goods — but argued that Russia would come out stronger in the long run.
"What is more important for us? To be independent, self-sufficient and guarantee our own future development?" said Putin. "Or to have some cardboard packaging today?"
Turnout was also lacking
The forum — which organizers often bill as "the Russian Davos" and is marking its 25th year — was notable for its lack of high-profile political and business leaders. Representatives from about 90 countries were signed up to attend, compared with 140 countries reported last year, according to The Associated Press.
In what critics took as a symbol of Russian isolation amid the conflict in Ukraine, this year's featured guests included a Russian-speaking robot, a member of Afghanistan's Taliban and the Kremlin-backed leaders of separatist, self-proclaimed "republics" in Ukraine's Donbas.
And Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the lone head of state to join Putin onstage, seemingly upbraided his host when he said his country was unlikely to join Russia in recognizing "quasi-governments" in the Donbas.
"If the right to self-determination is to be realized everywhere on the planet, then instead of 193 governments on Earth, there will be 500 or 600," Tokayev said. The hall's audience went quiet.
"Of course, it will be chaos."