UK media reported last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video meeting with senior Italian business leaders to expand ties between Italy and Russia amid rising tensions over a possible confrontation with Ukraine. According to a Financial Times report:
January 25, 2022 The top executives of some of Italy’s largest companies including Pirelli, Generali and UniCredit are due to hold a video meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss economic ties, even as Europe and the US threaten to impose punishing sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine. The meeting on Wednesday, which the Kremlin said would cover “the potential for further expanding ties between the two countries’ businessmen”, comes despite rising tensions over a possible confrontation in Ukraine. It also comes as transatlantic allies have laboured to agree a unified approach over the brewing crisis in Ukraine following missteps that 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 as a way to maintain dialogue regardless of geopolitical tensions. […] Participants in Wednesday’s meeting are due to include Provera as well as Francesco Starace, chief executive of Enel; 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
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The report notes that the Italo-Russian business committee, set up with the support of Moscow and Rome, is co-led by Marco Tronchetti Provera, chief executive of tire manufacturer Pirelli, and Dmitry Konov, head of petrochemicals producer Sibur. International media reported later that Putin’s meeting with top Italian companies went ahead despite a call from Rome for business executives not to attend. The reports also indicate that the two-and-a-half-hour meeting with top managers from 16 companies had lasted longer than expected and had been friendly and constructive. According to an analyst quoted in the Financial Times report, Russia sees 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.” According to data from Italy’s foreign affairs ministry, in 2021, Russia was Italy’s 14th biggest export destination. Yet, Italy has become the second-largest buyer of Russian natural gas in the European Union, providing more than one-third of its domestic demand.
Elite ‘friendship groups’ and business lobbies have been an important tool for the Kremlin to exert influence and weaken Europe’s Russia policy. In November, the European Parliament’s committee against foreign interference published a report which said: “economic lobbying strategies can be combined with foreign interference goals.” The report also identified former prime ministers from Germany, Finland, and France and a former foreign minister from Austria as Russian influence agents.