Ukraine moves closer to EU candidacy; Families of 2 missing American veterans speak out: June 17 recap

This is a recap of updates out of the war in Ukraine for Friday, June 17. For the latest news, click here.

The executive arm of the European Union recommended Friday that Ukraine become a candidate for membership, the first step in a process that could take decades. 

The endorsement is set to be discussed by the bloc's leaders next week in Brussels. 

"Ukraine has clearly demonstrated its aspiration and determination to live up to European values and standards," President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. "We want them to live with us the European dream."

Russia's invasion in February increased pressure to fast-track Ukraine's candidate status. But accession talks require unanimous approval from all 27 member counties and some do not agree on how quickly the process of accepting new members should proceed.

The announcement comes as Russia continued its attacks on cities in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region leaving desperate residents wondering what the next years hold for them.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, center, chairs a meeting of the College of Commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, June 17, 2022. Ukraine's request to join the European Union may advance Friday with a recommendation from the EU's executive arm that the war-torn country deserves to become a candidate for membership in the 27-nation bloc.

Latest developments:

►Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on Friday after the Kremlin said “massive cyberattacks” delayed his appearance, according to the Washington Post and CNN.

► Ukraine will not host Eurovision Song Contest in 2023, organizers announced Friday. In May, the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the contest with "Stefania,'' and the right to host next year's event. 

►The UK said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Ukraine Friday on a surprise visit, his second trip since the Russian invasion began.

►Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday criticized the U.S. for its "reckless and insane" sanctions against the Kremlin, claiming that his economy will overcome the financial consequences to his war in Ukraine.

Families of 2 Americans missing in Ukraine speak out

The families of two Alabama men – who went missing near Kharkiv in a battle last week and were feared to have been captured – told USA TODAY they are holding out hope that the men could be released.

Joy Black's fiancée Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, a 27-year-old former Marine, drew up a will, said goodbye to her and left Hartselle, Alabama, in April to help Ukrainians repel Russian forces.

That same month, not far away in Tuscaloosa, former Army Sgt. Alexander Drueke, a 39-year-old Iraq war veteran, had deliberated for a month before deciding to pack his gear for Ukraine.

Russian state television on Friday showed video of the two men, confirming that they were taken captive and raising fears about their fate. They are believed to be the first Americans captured by Russian forces since the war began on Feb. 24.

Previously, Dianna Shaw, 55, Drueke’s aunt, urged the government to help bring them home. If they are in custody, "We appeal for Alex's and Andy's humane treatment in the meantime," Shaw said in a text message to USA TODAY on Friday. "Coach Nick Saban always tells us Bama fans to 'trust the process' and that's exactly what we are doing."

Meantime, the State Department has said it was aware of reports a third American was missing in Ukraine, whom the Washington Post and CNN identified as Grady Kurpasi, another Marine veteran.

On Friday, President Joe Biden said he'd been briefed. "We don't know where they are, but I want to reiterate: Americans should not be going to Ukraine now. Say it again: Americans should not be going to Ukraine," he told reporters. Read more here. 

— Chris Kenning, USA TODAY

Biden: There's a 'price to pay' in helping Ukraine but it was important

In a rare interview with a news organization, President Biden told the Associated Press on Thursday "there was going to be a price to pay" for helping Ukraine, but not acting would have been worse.

"You’d see chaos in Europe," Biden said. "The Russians might have continued into other countries and China and North Korea could have been emboldened to make their own moves."

Asked about the political risk he now faces from higher gas prices and whether Americans have a daily sense of the national security stakes he described, Biden said most households are just trying to figure out how to put food on the table. But as president, he has to be willing to make tough decisions despite any political consequence, he said. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently acknowledged that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan's expanded child tax credit increased demand and might have caused a “marginal” increase in food prices. Biden rejected that possibility.

“You could argue whether it had a marginal, minor impact on inflation. I don’t think it did. And most economists do not think it did,” he said. “But the idea that it caused inflation is bizarre.” Read more here. 

—  Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY

Russian-owned superyacht seized by US arrives in Hawaii

A Russian-owned superyacht seized by the United States arrived in Honolulu Harbor on Thursday flying an American flag after the U.S. won a legal battle in Fiji last week to take the $325 million vessel.

The FBI has linked the Amadea to the Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov. The U.S. said Kerimov secretly bought the Cayman Island-flagged vessel last year through various shell companies.

MORE:How the seizure of Russian superyachts helps the feds punish Putin and his oligarchs

The ship became a target of Task Force KleptoCapture, launched in March to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs to put pressure on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. The 348-foot-long vessel, about the length of a football field, features a live lobster tank, a hand-painted piano, a swimming pool and a large helipad.

Lawyer Feizal Haniff, who represented Millemarin Investments, the owner on paper, had argued the owner was another wealthy Russian who, unlike Kerimov, doesn’t face sanctions.

US to send $1B package to Ukraine 

The U.S. announced it would send a $1 billion package of military assistance to Ukraine earlier this week — the largest allocation of aid provided by the U.S. since the invasion began.

The American aid package includes $350 million in rapid, off-the-shelf deliveries by the Pentagon and $650 million in other longer-term purchases. The U.S. military will send Ukraine 18 howitzers, 36,000 rounds of ammunition for them, tactical vehicles, in addition to other equipment like Harpoon coastal defense systems and secure radios.

Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Anna Malyar said this week that Ukraine had only received 10% of the military assistance it had requested from western countries.

Meanwhile, France, Germany, Slovakia, Canada, and Poland also pledged to send more military aid to Ukraine this week.

Russian spy attempted to access international court investigating war crimes as an intern, Dutch say

A Russian military spy posed as a Brazilian national in an attempt to get an internship at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which is investigating war crimes allegations in Ukraine, the Dutch intelligence service said Thursday.

The General Intelligence and Security Service named the Russian intelligence officer as Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov and said that in April he used an elaborately constructed identity to try to infiltrate the court. It published a letter that accompanied Cherkasov's internship application. Writing under the alias Viktor Muller Ferreira, he spun a complex cover tale about growing up in poverty in Brazil and how members of his family suffered from heart problems.

Cherkasov was detained at a Dutch airport and deported to Brazil, where he could face court proceedings.

“If the intelligence officer had succeeded in gaining access as an intern to the ICC, he would have been able to gather intelligence there and to look for (or recruit) sources, and arrange to have access to the ICC’s digital systems," the General Intelligence and Security Service said in a statement.

That would have provided a "significant contribution" to the intelligence that Russia is seeking. The spy might also have been able to influence criminal proceedings, the service said.

There was no immediate reaction from Moscow, though the attempted infiltration may indicate how seriously Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The Kremlin has consistently denied the accusation, saying the West was concocting a misinformation campaign against Russia.

– Kim Hjelmgaard

Contributing: The Associated Press