Sat. May 21st, 2022


During a video conference on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin tried to persuade some of Italy’s most prominent businessmen to “feel as comfortable as possible” about the Russian market during a video conference that deliberately avoided the topic in most minds: the 106,000 troops stationed by Russia’s president in Ukraine.

Business leaders, including CEOs of banking group UniCredit, tire maker Pirelli and state-owned utility Enel, discussed Moscow’s climate change ambitions, economic reforms and business opportunities as part of an event hosted by the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce, according to participants.

The meeting continued despite the office of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s plea Tuesday night to postpone it, a government official said. The head of the Italian-Russian chamber of commerce, Vincenzo Trani, insisted it was too late to reschedule it, said four people involved in the discussions. A spokesperson for Trani was not immediately available for comment.

The meeting underscores the Kremlin’s efforts to sway the European business elite while the US and Europe debate a new package of sanctions in case Putin invades Ukraine. The US has warned Moscow is preparing another military attack following its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

Geopolitical tensions between Moscow and the EU and the US were not discussed during the meeting, but one participant said there was “a general feeling of embarrassment”. Another said that although the meeting was “bad at the time”, withdrawal at the last minute would have exposed them to retaliation as they had all been doing business in Russia for years.

Francesco Starace, CEO of Enel, suggested that Russia lift its carbon emissions targets, said several participants who spoke on condition of anonymity. On the Russian side, the ministers of energy, transport, finance, industry and trade as well as top business figures were present. Enel declined to comment.

Other Italian state-owned companies – including the oil company Eni, the oil service group Saipem and the gas transport company Snam – planned to attend the meeting, but withdrew on Tuesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that any Italian executives had fallen under pressure from Draghi’s government, saying the changes were due to illness and scheduling conflicts.

Other participants, including UniCredit chief Andrea Orcel, Pirelli chief Marco Tronchetti Provera and Generali chairman Gabriele Galateri di Genola, discussed their companies’ presence in Russia.

During the initial part of the meeting, which was televised, Putin said Russia wanted Italian business to “feel as comfortable as possible about the Russian market.” He stressed that Italy, one of Europe’s largest importers of Russian gas, was able to buy gas supplies “far below the local market prices which grew significantly due to the cold winter and an abundant supply” thanks to long-term contracts with the Kremlin monopoly Gazprom.

This meeting has “nothing to do with the current situation or any sanctions,” Peskov said before the meeting. “Life goes on, business interests go nowhere, they have a presence in the Russian market [ . . .] As long as they make money in Russia, they are interested in having this conversation. “

The date of the event was agreed in November with the knowledge of Italy’s Foreign Ministry. Putin sometimes holds business meetings with European business executives. He met French executives last year and German business leaders in 2019, according to the Kremlin’s website.

Italian government officials maintained the meeting was a private event. However, the Italian-Russian business committee that helped organize it was created in 2020 by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

“It would not have been news at another time. “It was clear to the Italian government not to make a mistake at such a sensitive time,” said a chief executive, who nevertheless attended.

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