The Kremlin said on Friday that Vladimir Putin was set to meet German business leaders following a similar event with Italian executives, prompting a warning by the German government that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would put economic ties between Moscow and Berlin at risk.
A person close to the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, the organiser, confirmed it was keen to schedule a virtual meeting with Russia’s president soon but that it had no clarity on a date. Before the pandemic, such events were held on an annual basis.
News of the meeting comes after a group of top Italian executives from groups including UniCredit, Pirelli and state-owned utility Enel met Putin this week, despite a plea by Mario Draghi’s government to postpone the encounter given the tensions between Russia and the west over Ukraine.
Moscow has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, stoking fears of an invasion. The US has said there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia might attack its western neighbour next month and warned the Kremlin that the west would impose wide-ranging sanctions in response.
The last meeting with Putin and the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a lobby group of companies with operations in Russia, took place in 2019 and was attended by top executives from groups including Siemens and Knorr-Bremse Group.
But on Friday, Christofer Burger, spokesman for the German foreign ministry, said that Germany cared more about upholding the “European framework for peace” than about “improving economic relations with Russia”.
Asked about Putin’s planned meeting with German business leaders, he said: “Conditions for closer economic co-operation depend on how Russia behaves when it comes to European peace.”
Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister, warned this week that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea would not go forward if Russia invaded Ukraine. Berlin had been receiving “mixed signals” from the Kremlin, which wanted a closer economic relationship with Germany while at the same time made “threats of force that evoke the cold war”, she told the Funke media group.
“These two things don’t fit together,” she said. “The basis for any co-operation must be international law, in particular our joint agreements on security.”
Russian stocks have had a rocky week, with the Moscow exchange’s main index down almost 6 per cent on Monday while the rouble hit a 15-month low. Both have strengthened since but remain volatile as concerns rise over potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the threat of sanctions.
Russia was once one of Germany’s main trading partners but economic ties between the two were hit by the international sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Russia is now Germany’s 14th-biggest trading partner, way behind China, the US and UK. Trade between the two reached nearly €45bn in 2020, a big decline on the €58bn recorded in 2019.