US companies to talk business with Putin in St. Petersburg

June 2017

Nabi Abdullaev, Associate Director

After several years of low attendance, during which the Obama administration actively discouraged US businesses from participating in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia’s largest international business gala, this year sees the return of American companies in sufficient numbers to run a separate U.S.-Russia roundtable for the first time in the forum’s history.

And while US-Russian relations are drifting away from the much-hyped rapprochement under new President Donald Trump, apparently his strong pro-business policies are working to unshackle US corporations doing business with Moscow.

SPIEF, once dubbed "the Russian Davos" and held annually in St. Petersburg since 1997, is a major Kremlin PR vehicle to showcase Russia’s global economic strengths, and one of the very few opportunities for business captains, both Russian and foreign, to rub elbows with top Russian officials during three days of commercial negotiations, sponsored panels, cocktail parties and sports events.

Despite showcase guests including presidents and royalty, nevertheless the highlight since 2005 has become the plenary session with Vladimir Putin, with visitors and analysts parsing his speech for indications of policy shifts or future investments.  Putin is also scheduled to meet with over 40 heads of sovereign funds from 23 countries, collectively managing $11.4 trillion, according to Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

Typically the forum is used to announce major investments in Russia, such as the landmark $270 billion, 25-year deal announced in 2013 between state giants Rosneft and China’s National Petroleum Corporation. In 2016, organizers reported 332 signed agreements totaling $16 billion. This year, multi-billion investments are due to be announced from the Middle East and Gulf States.

The administration for the Leningrad region, which surrounds the city of St. Petersburg, is set to sign 130 deals, worth over $5 billion, including with Phillip Morris and Knauf.

Since 2014, following the events in Ukraine and Russia’s intervention, the White House has pressured heads of America’s largest corporations to skip an event previously attended by chief executives of some of the US’s leading companies.

This year, the U.S.-Russia Business Council Roundtable will be held on June, 2. In attendance will be senior executives representing some of America’s leading corporations, such as Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric and Phillip Morris International.

“We believe that heads of the largest Russian and international companies, including those with American roots, from different economic sectors will take part in our event,” says Alexis Rodzianko, President of the US Chamber of Commerce in Russia, who will cochair the event told Izvestia earlier in May.

But major deals involving US corporations are unlikely to be announced. The mixed messages coming from the White House in Washington leave American executives scratching their heads, reluctant to engage more than they are already. And the sanctions regimes imposed on Russian corporate and private interests are unlikely to be relaxed any time soon. For US businesses, the objective must be to continue dialogue with Russian counterparts with an eye on some future date when sanctions have been relaxed and relations have normalized.

It was at last year’s SPIEF that Putin welcomed the statements made by then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to restore relations with Russia.

“What I pay attention to and what I definitely welcome is Mr. Trump’s declaring that he is ready to restore full-fledged Russian-American relations…We all welcome it,” Putin said.

Sentiment has changed sharply since then, with analysts everywhere struggling to interpret President Trump’s various pronouncements, including the most recent at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels where he named Russia among the top security threats to NATO.

This year’s forum, to be held on June  1-3, will be dedicated to what organizers call “achieving a new balance in the global economic arena.”

In his greetings letter to participants published on May 25, President Putin called for a discussion of risks and challenges that new technologies pose for humanity, and for changing the global governance system to make the benefits of globalization available to all people, in order to secure balanced and sustainable development.

Putin will be joined by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Austria’s Federal Chancellor Christian Kern at the plenary session on June 2. Ten Nobel Prize laureates are reported to be in attendance.

Security measures will be ramped up during the forum in St. Petersburg, where a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in the metro on April 3, killing 15 and injuring 102 people.

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