The top executives of some of Italy’s largest companies including Pirelli, Generali and UniCredit are due to have a video meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to discuss economic ties, even as Europe and the US threaten to impose punishing sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine.
The meeting, which the Kremlin said would cover “the potential for further expanding ties between the two countries’ businessmen”, comes as the US and Europe have warned Russia’s president against an invasion of Ukraine.
It also comes as transatlantic allies have laboured to agree a unified approach over Ukraine following missteps that have exposed sharp differences over how to respond to Putin.
The date of the event — organised by the Italy-Russia chamber of commerce and the Italo-Russian business committee — was agreed in November with the knowledge of Italy’s foreign ministry.
An Italian government official said the event was “a private initiative which does not envisage the participation of any personalities linked to public institutions”. Organisers said the event would go ahead regardless of geopolitical tensions as a way to maintain dialogue.
The Italo-Russian business committee, set up with the support of the Russian and Italian governments, is co-led by Marco Tronchetti Provera, chief executive of tyre manufacturer Pirelli, and Dmitry Konov, head of petrochemicals producer Sibur.
Participants in Wednesday’s event are due to include Provera, as well as Francesco Starace, Enel chief executive; Andrea Orcel, chief executive of banking group UniCredit; and Antonio Fallico, the Russia chair of Intesa Sanpaolo, according to a list seen by the Financial Times. Spokespersons for the companies confirmed the executives would be in attendance but declined to comment further on the meeting.
People close to ENI initially said CEO Claudio Descalzi was due to attend. But an updated list of participants on Tuesday afternoon showed that the company’s vice-president would go instead. A spokesperson for ENI later said the company was no longer planning to participate, without providing a reason for the change. Generali CEO Philippe Donnet also appeared in an earlier list of participants. After publication of the FT story on Tuesday evening, the company said chair Gabriele Galateri would instead attend.
Also listed as attending are senior figures from Kremlin-run companies including oil monopoly Rosneft’s chief Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest allies, and Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
“The participants did not express any doubts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the FT before changes were made to the list of Italian participants. Dmitriev declined to comment.
Putin holds these meetings “because he expects that big business can weaken the west’s Russia policy”, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “This was his approach to Germany and the whole of Europe — right now it seems they see Italy as a weak link in the EU that he can influence so that they push to weaken European sanctions policy if there’s a serious military escalation in Ukraine.”
The US has warned that Russia may be planning a renewed invasion of Ukraine after massing 106,000 troops near its border and allegedly plotting to install a puppet government. Moscow has rejected the accusations but warned of “the most unpredictable and grave consequences” if the US does not agree to roll back Nato’s presence in eastern Europe and vow never to admit Ukraine. The White House has said the demands are unacceptable.
Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, who on Monday joined US President Joe Biden’s videoconference with EU and Nato allies to discuss the western response to Russia’s military build-up, has said Europe’s business ties to Moscow make serious sanctions all but impossible. On December 15, he also played down the risk of Putin invading the country.
Last month, he said “it would not be the right moment” for the EU to give up Russian gas supplies, adding: “Do we have missiles, ships, cannons, armies? At the moment we don’t and at the moment Nato has different strategic priorities.”
The Kremlin said Putin and the executives planned to discuss “current topics of Russia and Italy’s trade, economic and investment relationship” as well as the potential for expanding ties. “Special attention will be paid to the potential for developing co-operation on energy, industry, finance and [green] technology,” it added.
Italian officials and businessmen defended the event, which they said was part of a regular cycle of meetings between Putin and companies with major investments in Russia.
“Everyone’s objective is dialogue, not escalation, in this context there is no political stance on the part of businesses,” said one business leader who is planning to attend.
Putin spoke warmly of his phone conversations with Draghi last month. “With such a well-intentioned approach and [high] level of our relationship, Italy could play a role in normalising Russia-EU ties and even the negotiations that are going on now with Russia and Nato,” he said.
Italy and Russia’s trade relationship dates back to Putin’s friendship with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the 2000s.
Trade volumes between Russia and Italy grew 54 per cent year-on-year from January to November 2021 to $27.5bn, according to the chamber of commerce.
Though much of the total came from growth in Russian energy exports amid rising oil prices, Italian exports to Russia also rose 20 per cent to $11bn.
This story was updated to reflect that after publication of an earlier version, ENI pulled out from the meeting and that Generali is now planning to send its chair, not its CEO.