The presence of the Italian PM, the European Commission head and dozens of European and American CEOs at a business forum in St Petersburg shows that the Western blockade of Russia is dissolving, Russian media and diplomats have said.
Italy’s Matteo Renzi and the commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker will give speeches at the event, which takes place on Thursday and Friday (16-17 June), and hold bilateral meetings with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Renzi is bringing more than 20 top Italian executives, with Italian energy firms ENI and Saipem to sign new deals with Russia’s Rosneft and Novatek at the forum.
The Italian PM said earlier this week that his visit would take Italian-Russian relations to “a new level” and that Europe needs Putin’s help to fight terrorism.
Juncker’s spokesman said he is going as a “bridge-builder”.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said that Putin and Juncker will discuss EU sanctions on Russia, the migration crisis and Nord Stream II, a new Russia-Germany gas pipeline that needs the EU commission’s legal approval to go ahead.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The main thing is an attempt to look at where we are going in our relations, Russia and the European Union. And even against the background of current differences, what are the opportunities to maintain and develop dialogue.”
Putin is also to have dinner with former French leader and potential 2017 presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. Ushakov called him Putin’s “old friend” and said they would discuss “Russian-French relations”.
The Anglo-Dutch energy company Shell, like the Italian firms, is to sign a new gas deal with Russia’s Gazprom.
Other European firms sending their top people to the St Petersburg event include Glencore, JCDecaux, the Metro Group, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Societe Generale and Total.
The US state department said on Wednesday that the US government will not attend “at any level” due to Russia’s “continued … aggression” in Ukraine.
Its spokesman, James Kirby, said that “attending this forum sends a poor message out there about the acceptability of Russia’s actions”.
He added that firms which do business in Russia take “clear risks both economic and reputational” because Russia does not respect the rule of law.
But Ushakov, the Putin aide, highlighted the fact the US warning fell on deaf ears. He said “many representatives of other countries and leading international companies, including [from] countries which do not recommend sending their representatives to the forum” are coming anyway.
Russian state media was triumphant.
“These figures [on St Petersburg attendees] confirm that it is impossible to conduct a policy of isolation against Russia,” Izvestia, a Russian daily, said. Moskovsky Komsomolets, another daily, said the forum will “lift the reputation” that there is a Western “blockade” on Russia.
EU states have all-but agreed to extend Russia economic sanctions for another six months before they expire at the end of July.
But EU diplomats have warned it will be harder to maintain the EU consensus when the next renewal comes up in December.
’Hang in there!’
The sanctions, which include curbs on international lending to Russia’s top banks and energy firms, contributed to a 3.7 percent contraction in Russia’s GDP last year.
The developments, including low oil prices, could see Vnesheconombank, a Russian lender used by Putin to finance vanity projects such as the Sochi Olympics in 2014, being broken up unless it gets a huge bailout, according to the Bloomberg news agency.
Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev tried to make light of the difficult conditions on a recent trip to Russia-occupied Crimea in Ukraine when he told an elderly woman, who had complained about her low pension: “There simply isn’t any money … Hang in there! Cheer up, and good health!”.
The phrase “hang in there!” quickly became a meme in Russian media, the Financial Times reports.
Tele2, an internet company, posted billboards that said “Competitors, hang in there!”, while two other firms tried to register the phrase as a trademark.