Russian President Vladimir Putin met via video-link with business leaders from leading Italian companies on Wednesday, in spite of the tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine and NATO.
The meeting lasting over two hours was a severe embarrassment to the government in Rome, coming at a moment where Western powers have been threatening sanctions against Russia in the event of an attack on Ukraine.
The Russian president said Moscow saw Italy as one of its leading economic partners, in third place among EU countries in terms of trade volume.
Among the firms invited were the energy giants Eni and Enel, the tyre-maker Pirelli, and also the banks UniCredit and Intesa Sanpaolo and the insurance company Generali.
Mario Draghi’s government reportedly called on Eni and Enel, firms in which the Italian state has a stake, to pull out of the meeting. No government official was there.
Eni decided not to take part, a company spokesperson told AFP. But in Enel’s case the appeal fell on deaf ears. Generali and Pirelli, which coorganised the event, were also present.
The business chiefs, who were in Rome and Milan were reportedly obliged to leave their mobiles outside while the videolink meeting took place.
Putin told his audience that Russia was “a trusted supplier of energy resources to Italian consumers”. Gas prices have soared this winter and Russia is suspected of taking advantage of market tension to reduce deliveries and raise prices.
The president of the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce, Vincenzo Trani, noted there had been “some difficulties and challenging outside factors in recent years between Russia and Italy”.
But he said the two nations “were always able to overcome them through dialogue”.
The European Union, of which Italy is a member, imposed a raft of sanctions on Russia in 2014, as a response to the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The Italian economy has a chronic trade deficit with Russia. In 2019, before the pandemic struck, Russian imports into Italy were worth €14.3 billion, almost double the value of Italian exports to Russia which totalled €7.9 billion, according to Italian government figures.