Putin Business Ally Says U.S. Firms Keen on Post-Summit Deal

(Bloomberg) -- After the drama of President Donald Trump’s widely criticized news conference with President Vladimir Putin, one agreement the two leaders reached on the business front may go forward, according to the head of the Kremlin-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund.

Kirill Dmitriev, an ally of Putin who heads the sovereign wealth fund sanctioned by the U.S., says American businesses are eager to do more in a country whose relationship with Washington has been characterized recently by diplomatic expulsions and ever-toughening sanctions.

“We see interest from American partners,” Dmitriev said. His comments followed an announcement by Putin at Monday’s news conference in Helsinki that he and Trump agreed to create a “high-level” joint working group with “captains of Russian and American business.”

But a key U.S. business association signaled it might still be too soon. The head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, Alexis Rodzianko, said he’s not yet certain the U.S. is ready to support the idea.

“I would certainly welcome it,” Rodzianko said in an interview with the Sputnik news service. “But I think it requires both governments to work to create that platform, or that format. Then business will be most pleased to participate.”

Anger Over Meddling

As the fury in Washington over Trump’s comments at the news conference indicates, there’s still a lot of anger over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and Congress has only increased economic sanctions on the Cold War foe since Trump took office. Trump said Tuesday he accepts the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election, marking a rare reversal from comments just a day earlier.

Dmitriev has proven to be a persistent advocate of closer business ties. He met with Anthony Scaramucci, then an aide to President-elect Trump, at Davos last year to discuss joint investments with U.S. companies. The initiative didn’t go any further.

Soon after the summit, the RDIF announced that, together with sovereign wealth funds from China and the United Arab Emirates, it’s forming a joint venture with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial-arts league run by Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor, an old talent agent of Trump.

Mutual business interests can help boost international cooperation, and Russia’s experience with the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and Japan can be “effectively applied to the U.S.,” Dmitriev said in a statement Monday.

Dmitriev hasn’t invited any businesses to join a working group yet and no steps have been taken on the proposal so far, according to one person with direct knowledge. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t respond to a request for comment on who would head the group from the Russian side or what steps have been taken.

The head of a Russian state company who asked not to be identified said that no invitation to join the group had been received, though the person would be happy to participate. Still, while the Putin-Trump summit went better than expected from Russia’s perspective, it’s unlikely to pull relations between the countries out of the hole they’re in, the person said.

Putin’s Pitch

Putin said the new business body could play a major role in promoting closer trade and investment ties between Russia and the U.S.

“Business people better understand how to go about mutually beneficial cooperation. Let them consider what can be done and make recommendations,” he said. The Russian leader later told state-run Channel One that he and Trump had agreed to include those business leaders interested in developing cooperation.

Dmitriev helped set up meetings between U.S. and Russian executives in St. Petersburg in May, in parallel with the country’s biggest annual economic forum, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The forum was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s Wang Qishan.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, who’s made an improvement in business ties a cornerstone of his diplomatic efforts, encouraged U.S. companies to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. In a video posted on the embassy’s Twitter account in May, he said: “It’s a very important time to talk about the future economic relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Still, despite the world leaders headlining the event, U.S. firms active in Russia were mostly content to send local executives.

Sanctioned Billionaire

In St. Petersburg, a panel on U.S.-Russia business that initially listed Huntsman as a speaker included billionaire businessman Viktor Vekselberg, who was sanctioned by Washington in April over the Kremlin’s election meddling. Vekselberg has been linked to a $500,000 payment to an entity set up by Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, but denies any involvement in the transaction. In the end, Huntsman didn’t participate in the panel.

“While there are real issues of concern between our two countries and there remain a lot of questions regarding Russian behavior that Americans deserve answers to, the fact is that dialogue represents the way forward,” Huntsman said in a separate video before the forum. “Mutual isolation will only drive us apart. That’s why I’m going to SPIEF.”

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