UPDATED: Putin stresses energy ties in address to Italy’s business elite

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MILAN/MOSCOW, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of ties between Russia’s energy industry and Italy as he addressed Italian business leaders in a video-conference on Wednesday despite rising tensions over Ukraine.

The meeting with top Italian companies, including state-controlled groups like Enel, went ahead despite a call from Rome for business leaders not to attend.

Western leaders are stepping up preparations for any Russian military action against Ukraine and making plans to shield Europe from potential disruptions to Russian energy supplies.

Energy is one of the main issues on the agenda for Europe as surging natural gas prices have inflated energy bills for businesses and households. Russia supplies the European Union with around a third of its gas.

Russia, which insists it does not plan to invade Ukraine, said the main aim of the meeting with Italy’s business community was to develop Russian interests.

“I would like to underscore that we consider Italy as one of the leading economic partners,” Putin said in opening remarks.

He said Moscow was especially pleased with cooperation with Italian companies and banks on large-scale projects in the energy sector like Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2.

Managers of big Italian companies, including power group Enel, the country’s top two banks Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit and insurer Generali met Putin via a video link.

The Italian executives, who included UniCredit CEO Andrea Orcel and Enel chief Francesco Starace, gathered in two luxury hotels in Rome and Milan.

“The meeting is a private initiative and there is no government involvement in it,” an Italian government official said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russian ministers would attend the meeting as well as Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft and Dmitry Konov, head of petrochemical company Sibur.


U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would consider personal sanctions on President Putin if Russia invades Ukraine though some big companies and business groups are pushing the White House and lawmakers to be cautious.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has previously said the EU has little leverage with Russia over Ukraine but needs to keep talking to Putin to calm tensions.

The video call was organised by the Italy-Russia chamber of commerce and the Italian-Russian business committee chaired by Marco Tronchetti Provera, head of tyre manufacturer Pirelli .

Other companies scheduled to take part included state-controlled energy groups Eni and Saipem . But Eni said on Tuesday it would not attend, while a source said Saipem had also opted not to take part.

Eni has strategic long-term gas contracts with Russia and agreements with oil group Rosneft which are on hold. Italy sources around 40% of its gas from Russia.

Enel CEO Starace, whose brother Giorgio is the Italian ambassador to Moscow, took part in the meeting, pictures showed. The world’s biggest private green energy group operates in Russia through Enel Russia and has renewable power ventures.

Italy was Russia’s fifth biggest trading partner in 2020. Their trade in the first nine months of last year was up 44% on the same period the previous year.

Putin said around 500 Italian firms operated in Russia in sectors like energy, steel, and banking, investing around $5 billion in the economy.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome, Stephen Jewkes in Milan and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, additional reporting by Valentina Za, Elvira Pollina, Giuseppe Fonte and Giulio Piovaccari, writing by Giulia Segreti; editing by Jason Neely and Jane Merriman

Photo – Russian President Vladimir Putin. EPA-EFE/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

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