Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to justify his war in Ukraine as legal under international law at his flagship economic forum on Friday. Sitting beside him on the stage, a key ally diplomatically disagreed.
After Putin argued he was protecting Russian-speakers in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk peoples’ republics of eastern Ukraine, which Russia had recognized as independent days before the invasion, moderator Margarita Simonyan, head of the Kremlin-funded RT TV, pressed Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on whether he supported Russia’s view.
Kazakhstan doesn’t recognize “quasi-state territories which, in our view, is what Luhansk and Donetsk are,” Tokayev said. There’d be “chaos” in the world if hundreds of new countries emerged, even as there is a conflict between the legal principles of territorial integrity of states and the right of people living in them to self-determination, he said.
Tokayev’s dissent at the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was a rare discordant note for the Kremlin, which sought to show that Russia is successfully defying U.S. and European sanctions aimed at isolating Putin. It was all the more noteworthy because Putin sent troops to Kazakhstan in January at Tokayev’s request to help crush what he called an attempted coup. Russia and Kazakhstan are also members of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led rival to the European Union.
The authorities are “stabilizing the economy step by step” and the West’s “economic blitzkrieg against Russia had no chance of success,” Putin told the audience composed largely of Russian officials and business leaders. He cited U.S. author Mark Twain to describe Russia’s economic resilience, saying that “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Europe stands to lose more than $400 billion this year as a result of sanctions imposed on Russian imports that have fueled increases in energy costs, he said, without elaborating. He denied responsibility for what he said some were calling “Putin’s inflation,” blaming the global surge in prices on U.S. and European policies.
During his biggest public speech since the Feb. 24 invasion, Putin defended Russia’s slow progress in eastern Ukraine, saying the military was avoiding a full-scale assault on Ukrainian positions in order to reduce troop losses and was seeking to encircle them instead.
Still, Putin said he has “nothing against” Ukraine joining the European Union, even as he laid blame for the origins of the conflict on the 2014 overthrow of its former pro-Kremlin president in Kyiv after he rejected a trade accord with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia. The European Commission on Friday recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status, the first step in a long process toward eventual EU membership.
In a potentially uncomfortable moment for Tokayev, Putin said the former Soviet Union covered the same territory as “historical Russia,” though he also said nobody would even think of spoiling relations with “fraternal” Kazakhstan.
The forum normally attracts world leaders and executives from global corporations, but few foreigners attended this year amid the international backlash over the war that’s led to an exodus of companies from Russia. The government has responded by seeking to bolster economic self-reliance to make up for the loss of key western technologies as Russia faces potentially its worst economic contraction in years.
During the plenary discussion, Simonyan, the moderator, showed Putin a juice box that lacked its usual coloring because sanctions had led to a shortage of ink in Russia.
“What’s more important for us — to be independent or to have packaging today?” replied Putin, who said it wasn’t difficult for Russia to find new suppliers of such goods eventually. “Only sovereign countries can count on a sovereign future.”
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