Putin sweet-talks Italian firms despite Ukraine tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks online with representatives of Italian firms, on 26 January 2022. [Kremlin website]

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a virtual meeting with top Italian executives on Wednesday (26 January), despite Rome’s opposition due to escalating tensions over Ukraine.

Energy firm Enel, insurer Generali and tyre manufacturer Pirelli were all confirmed to take part in Putin’s online meeting with the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce, with Unicredit bank also reported to be attending.

Energy major Eni told AFP it had decided Tuesday to withdraw.

The US and other Western powers have warned Moscow of punishing economic sanctions if it moves ahead with what they fear is an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

The meeting was first announced by the Italian chamber in November, to “support the economic and commercial exchanges between our two countries”.

But the timing of the meeting has sparked concern, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government asked firms in which the Italian state has a stake not totake part, according to a source close to one participant.

An Italian government official told AFP: “The meeting is of a private nature and no member of the Italian government will take part.”

In a statement, the Kremlin said it would address topical issues relating to economic cooperation, trade and investment, notably “the possibilities of reinforcing cooperation in the realms of energy, industry, finance and environmentally friendly technology”.

Italy is heavily dependent on Russian gas and as such, has a chronic trade deficit with Russia.

According to a Kremlin transcript, Putin said Russia was looking at Italy as a priority trade partner. I his words, 500 Italian companies were active in Russia, in fields such as energy and banking. He said that for the last year, Russia supplied to Italy 22.7 billion of cubic meters, a substantial increase compared to the 20.8 billion in 2020.

In his introductory remarks published by the Kremlin website, Putin didn’t mention the threat of sanctions.

Gas prices have soared this winter, a surge thought to be partly down to a particularly cold winter and a return to economic activity after the pandemic. But Moscow is also suspected of taking advantage of the tensions on the world market to reduce supply and drive up prices.

NATO said Monday it was sending jets and ships to bolster its eastern European flank, as the United States and European Union looked to coordinate a tough response to Russia if it invades Ukraine.

Unlike most of its Western neighbours, Italy has historically relatively friendly ties with Putin, backed by strong, long-standing investments by Italian corporations in Russia.

Italy was initially reluctant to support EU sanctions on Russia following its 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Since becoming prime minister of Italy in February last year, Mario Draghi has stressed that Italy is firmly on the side of the European Union and NATO. In December, however, he downplayed the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying that Putin did not appear to be “ready for action”.

Italy’s defence minister said Wednesday the country would uphold its NATO commitments in the Ukraine crisis, while underlining the need for a peaceful solution.

“The Alliance has provided for a strengthening of deterrence measures on its eastern flank to which Italy is also participating in terms of operations and missions already authorised by parliament,” Lorenzo Guerini said in a statement.

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