(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, pushing to build business ties with Russia, is scheduled to join a panel discussion this month at the Kremlin’s premier economic forum with Viktor Vekselberg, an oligarch slapped with American sanctions and linked to payments to Donald Trump’s lawyer.
Jon Huntsman, appointed by Trump last year, has been encouraging American business leaders to attend the St. Petersburg forum for the first time since the Ukraine crisis, even as political tensions between the Cold War rivals continue to rise. The U.S. government had in past years actively lobbied executives to steer clear of President Vladimir Putin’s main annual pitch for foreign investors after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
“We have a lot of American businesses who are going to be there,” Huntsman said in a video posted Thursday on the embassy’s Twitter account. “It’s a very important time to talk about the future economic relationship between the United States and Russia.”
U.S. sanctions have expanded steadily since 2014, hitting top companies and businessmen last month and sending the ruble sliding.
Vekselberg and his Renova holding company were among those added to the list April 6. He and Huntsman are scheduled to appear together on a U.S.-Russia Business Dialogue panel at the forum on May 25, according to the official program.
A more detailed schedule from the panel organizers shows Huntsman is to give a brief “welcoming speech” at the event. Vekselberg is listed as a panelist for the subsequent discussion.
The U.S. Treasury didn’t respond to a request for comment. Renova declined to comment.
This week, Vekselberg was publicly been linked to a $500,000 payment to an entity set up by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Vekselberg denies any involvement in the transaction.
“This is horrifying,” Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser in Treasury’s sanctions unit and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in Twitter of Huntsman’s plans. “Please don’t go be a pawn at Putin’s invest-in-Russia campaign. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t do a panel with an SDN,” he added, using the abbreviation for those subject to the strictest sanctions, like Vekselberg.
The ambassador’s efforts come as Trump has repeatedly called for a better relationship with the Russian leader, and invited Putin to Washington after he won a fourth term in March.
Huntman’s predecessor, John Tefft, attended the forum last year, ending a three-year hiatus for official U.S. representation but keeping a low profile without any pitch to businesses to participate.
The embassy is sending an upbeat message these days. “They’ve stopped discouraging participation at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and, on the contrary, are encouraging companies to come,” Alexis Rodzianko, who runs the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, said. “They’re saying the more important people you send, the better.”
So far, Huntsman’s powers of persuasion appear to be falling short. Despite Putin headlining the glitzy event, a preliminary list of attendees shows a lack of firepower from U.S. companies, as Russia’s sluggish economic outlook rather than political pressure keeps senior executives away.
U.S. firms active in Russia seem to be mostly content to send local executives, with the exception of ExxonMobil Production Co.’s Neil Duffin and the head of International Paper Co., Mark Sutton, who forum organizers say are expected to come. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP said it would send Chairman Bob Moritz. Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait will moderate a panel with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 25.
(In an earlier version of this story, the name of the International Paper chief was corrected.)
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