A discussion panel on U.S.-Russian business relations finds collaboration between the two countries stalling in all sectors but high technology.

Russia's Deputy Minister of Economic Development Alexei Likhachev at the 17th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Source: Igor Russak/RIA Novosti

“Even in Stalin's time, the United States was our number-one trading partner. It's sad that we've fallen so far behind,” lamented Evgeny Savostyanov, the vice president of the Moscow-based SMM company. This sentiment was echoed by other members of a panel on U.S.-Russian business relations, held as part of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The panel concluded that U.S.-Russian business relations were nowhere near the state they should be in.

Trade with the United States made up just 3.9 percent of Russia’s total turnover in 2011, down from 4.3 percent in 2008, investment holding FINAM’s figures show. Meanwhile, almost half of Russia’s trade takes place with EU member states. According to FINAM analyst Anton Soroko, the United States and Russia mostly trade in oil and oil products, metal products (cars and equipment) and chemicals. 

“The days when the United States constituted our most important trade and investment partner are now a distant memory,” said Deputy Economic Minister Alexei Likhachev. “But I'm convinced that our potential for this kind of interaction has not been fully tapped.”

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at Russia's Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) was similarly gloomy. “For 12 years we had a great working relationship with our colleagues in the Senate: we spoke very honestly and frankly about international and domestic politics, business and just about everything else. Since then [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John] Kerry moved to another job, and the new chairman doesn't even answer my letters. We don't have the working group anymore.”

“I'm tired of resetting relations every time the administration changes in the United States or in Russia,” Margelov said. “We need to have a long-term dialogue between our governments grounded in something solid. I guess business ties are the way to go.”

The lack of political trust will be increasingly responsible for the weakening of business ties, according to Jack Martin, CEO of the global PR giant Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “Increasingly, the dialogue over any major decision will take public onion into account. Decision-makers will raise their finger to the wind more often to decide if it's ok to take a certain position. Right now, 48 percent of survey respondents in the United States hold a negative view of Russia. In Russia, a similar percentage of people negatively view the United States.”

The only panel participants with a positive outlook seem to have been U.S. and Russian tech company representatives. “In the tech sector, everything is going great,” said Anatoly Karachinsky, president of IBS. “Our company is preparing an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. We're working with leading U.S. companies like Boeing, Citibank and Ford on everything from credit systems to building the car of the future. I have only good things to say about our work in America.”

“Hi-tech is a politically neutral sector,” added Cisco CEO John Chambers. “If we can get along with democrats and republicans, we can get along with Russia. We're expanding R&D in Russia and our commitment to Skolkovo remains unchanged. Whenever you're doing something new, you're bound to encounter bumps along the way. But Russian talent is really good and it's in our interest to be here.”

“I hope politicians will follow your lead,” concluded David Yakobashvili, the founder of Wimm-Bill-Dann. As one of the largest dairy product makers in Europe, Wimm-Bill-Dann was one of the first Russian companies to go public with an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1990s.