Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte vowed Wednesday to expand economic ties between their two countries despite European Union sanctions against Russia.
Conte, on his first trip to Russia, began talks with Putin in the Kremlin by saying that the two countries have managed to preserve the “quality and volume of our ties.” He invited Putin to visit Italy in the near future.
Ties between Russia and Italy have been badly damaged by EU sanctions against Russia and by Moscow’s retaliatory moves.
Bilateral trade has slowly increased in recent years as the Russian economy has climbed out of recession, but it still remains a fraction of what it was before EU penalties over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Several rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have crippled investment projects. Earlier this year, the Italian energy giant ENI bailed out of a joint project with Russia’s top state oil company, Rosneft, to tap Black Sea oil reserves. ENI was also considering suspending another such venture in the Barents Sea, Russian news agencies reported.
“Regrettably, Italy’s niche in the Russian market has decreased but the volume of our economic ties have remained strong,” Putin said as he greeted Conte. “Despite the difficult times, our political contacts have remained on a high level.”
Putin said Russian-Italian trade reached $24 billion last year, but noted that it still falls far short of nearly $54 billion in 2013, the year before the EU sanctions crippled bilateral ties.
At the same time, the Russian leader noted that “business-like but also very warm relations” between the two countries have been “supported by all political forces both in Italy and in Russia.”
Conte’s populist coalition includes the right-wing League party, which says EU penalties on Russia over Ukraine have hurt Italian exports. League leader Matteo Salvini has praised Putin and vowed that Italy will lobby for the end of anti-Russian sanctions.
The Russian president said investment cooperation has continued despite the restrictions and over 500 Italian companies have invested about $5 billion in Russia, developing projects in energy, transport, high technology, food industries and other sectors.
“The ‘Made in Italy’ brand has become increasingly popular in Russia,” Putin said.
Following their talks, Conte and Putin took part in a video call to oversee the launch of a new factory to produce high-voltage electric motors designed by Italy’s Nidec company for Russia’s energy and other industries. The factory was built by Nidec and its Russian partners in the Ural Mountains’ city of Chelyabinsk.
“We are ready to support the Italian companies that intend to develop cooperation with Russian partners,” Conte said. “It’s our duty to strengthen industrial cooperation with Russia.”
The Italian agricultural lobby, Coldiretti, emphasized the need to seek an end to the EU trade restrictions, saying that the sanctions have cost Italian food producers 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) since they were imposed a little more than four years ago. It added that Italian restaurants in Russia were at risk due to a lack of ingredients.
During the Kremlin talks, Putin also thanked Italian authorities for providing quick assistance to Russian soccer fans who were injured when an escalator in Rome’s subway system collapsed on Tuesday night.
Earlier in the day, Conte met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who voiced hope that Conte’s visit would give a new impulse to Russian-Italian cooperation. He also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Kremlin wall and met with Italian businessmen.
“Italy is a country that enjoys good health, the fundamentals of our country are solid,” Conte said on Facebook after meeting with Italian entrepreneurs in Russia a day after Europe rejected Italy’s spending plans as dangerous to the country’s debt level.
“The government will do its part to make Italian companies grow,” Conte said. “There is a big commitment in that direction, as the measures in the maneuver demonstrate.”
He added the Italian government was “making it easier to invest, thanks to the simplification of bureaucracy and making it more convenient to hire, thanks to tax breaks.”