ST. PETERSBURG — Russian poetry was quoted. Jokes were made about flying to Mars. One American chief executive noted that his company’s relationship with Russia went back farther than his marriage with his wife.
Ties between Russia and the West may be at their worst since the days of the Cold War, but that did little to stop a slew of American business leaders from speaking Friday at a panel at the country’s annual lavish investment summit.
They were part of the largest international attendance since 2014, when Russia was hit with U.S. and European Union sanctions for annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Since then, Moscow’s ties with Washington have only further deteriorated over allegations of election interference.
French President Emmanuel Macron jetted in to headline the event alongside his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. On Friday, the two spoke at length to Russia’s business and political elite, just moments after the Netherlands and Australia said they were holding Russia legally responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board. But the forum hummed along, with Macron saying that France hoped to become Russia’s largest investor.
Encouraged to attend by Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia — himself a businessman — the Americans’ optimism in continuing business with Russia underscored the parallel reality in which those trying to straddle the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship often find themselves.
“Mutual isolation will only drive us further apart,” Huntsman said in a video address on the embassy’s Twitter feed. “That is why I’m going.”
The Washington Post reported Friday that President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen met with the Russian billionaire at Trump Tower in Manhattan just days before the 2017 inauguration. The meeting was an impromptu session arranged by Vekselberg’s cousin, Andrew Intrater, a New York investment manager who was also in attendance, said a person with knowledge of the encounter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Later that month, Cohen signed a consulting contract with Intrater’s investment firm, Columbus Nova. Company officials have said Vekselberg, who is Columbus Nova’s biggest client, played no role in Cohen’s hiring.
Vekselberg, one of Russia’s richest men, is under intense media scrutiny and spent much of the first two days of the St. Petersburg forum dodging reporters’ questions.
On the panel, Vekselberg, who has made his fortune from oil and metals, was wearing one of his many hats as president of Skolkovo, ostensibly Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley. Vekselberg appeared wistful as he described current relations between Moscow and Washington.
“The number of optimists has declined, though some remain in this room,” said the tycoon, whose two children both attended universities in the United States. He quoted a famous song by Soviet writer Bulat Okudzhava, about the futility of military service and soldiers’ feelings of disappointment at not being able to truly change the world.
Vekselberg was not the only one to wax lyrical. Mark von Pentz, who heads agriculture and turf equipment at Deere & Co., cited the 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, saying “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,” before saying the world’s largest country has the potential to feed a growing world.
The president of Boeing, Bertrand-Marc Allen, said Russia “is a place for long-term partnership,” noting that his company’s 25 years in Russia exceeded the time he has been married to his wife. The U.S. aerospace company was recently on the receiving end of the Kremlin’s ire when Russia said it would cancel titanium exports to Boeing as part of counter-sanctions. That proposed ban was later rolled back by Russia.
Sitting near the front was Sergey Kislyak, until recently Russia’s long-serving ambassador to Washington and once at the center of alleged collusion by Russia in Trump’s campaign. The veteran Russian diplomat issued the most measured response to the surge of enthusiasm in the room. “I consider the people who gather here as sort of pioneers in a new environment in bettering American-Russian relations,” he told reporters on the panel’s sidelines. “There are still a few.”