Putin asks US businessmen to help restore normal dialogue with Washington

ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 2 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin called on U.S. businessmen on Friday to help restore normal dialogue with Washington, saying good U.S.-Russia relations were in the interest of both nations.

Putin, addressing senior U.S. business executives during an economic forum in St Petersburg, said Moscow would continue to talk to U.S. President Donald Trump and the new U.S. administration.

"Help us restore normal political dialog," Putin said. "I ask you on behalf of Russia and I address the American side: help the new president and the new administration."

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Megyn Kelly interviews Vladimir Putin at St. Petersburg forum
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Megyn Kelly interviews Vladimir Putin at St. Petersburg forum
Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) talk to journalist Megyn Kelly (R) on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) at the Constantine (Konstantinovsky) Palace, Russia, June 1, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2017: NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly moderates the plenary session of the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017) held at the ExpoForum Convention and Exhibition Centre. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA JUNE 2, 2017: NBC News Anchor Megyn Kelly, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern, and Moldova's President Igor Dodon (L-R) at the plenary session at the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017) at the ExpoForum Convention and Exhibition Centre. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA JUNE 2, 2017: NBC News Anchor Megyn Kelly, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern, and Moldova's President Igor Dodon (L-R) at the plenary session at the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017) at the ExpoForum Convention and Exhibition Centre. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2017: NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly moderates the plenary meeting at the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017) held at the ExpoForum Convention and Exhibition Centre. Valery Sharifulin/TASS Host Photo Agency (Photo by Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2017: Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern, Moldova's President Igor Dodon, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly (L-R) attend the plenary meeting of the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017) held at the ExpoForum Convention and Exhibition Centre. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2017: US journalist and TV commentator Megyn Kelly, India's prime minister Narendra Modi, Russia's president Vladimir Putin, Austria's chancellor Christian Kern, andMoldova's president Igor Dodon (L-R) at a plenary session on Day 2 of the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017). Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei Druzhinin\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2017: US journalist and TV commentator Megyn Kelly, India's prime minister Narendra Modi, and Russia's president Vladimir Putin (L-R) at a plenary session on Day 2 of the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2017). Vladimir Smirnov/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images)
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The remarks came during the annual St Petersburg forum where investors mingle with President Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants. The U.S. has quietly cautioned major U.S. firms from attending in the three years after Russia annexed Crimea, but this year, the first forum since Donald Trump became U.S. president, such cautions were not issued, according to four people familiar with preparations for U.S. companies to attend.

Washington's policy toward Russia is essentially unchanged under Trump, with the United States committed to maintaining sanctions on Moscow unless it complies with international demands about Ukraine.

But its approach this year to the St Petersburg event - often described as Russia's version of the Davos forum in Switzerland - reveals a change in tone, according to some people who follow U.S.-Russia trade relations.

SEE ALSO: Vladimir Putin to Megyn Kelly: Even children could hack an election

Daniel Russell, the head of the U.S.-Russia business council, when asked if U.S. companies were feeling less pressure from the administration to stay away, said: "I think that's right.

"Some of the companies, particularly in 2015, received calls from the U.S. government not to attend and I think that attitude has certainly changed."

The change in tone fits with promises Trump made during his election campaign to pursue friendlier ties with Russia.

Any sign of warming toward the Kremlin is highly sensitive for the White House, since Congress and the FBI are conducting inquiries into whether members of the Trump team had improper contacts with Russian officials before Trump's inauguration. Trump has denied doing anything wrong.

SEE MORE: Former FBI chief James Comey to testify in Russia probe

Asked about contacts with companies planning to attend the forum, a State Department spokesperson said: "We have an open dialog with the business community, and ultimately companies are free to make their own decisions, in line with applicable laws and regulations."

The forum in St Petersburg was in its second day on Friday and there were signs of a more substantial U.S. presence than in previous years since the March 2014 annexation of Crimea.

U.S. AMBASSADOR

U.S. ambassador to Russia John Tefft was at the forum, though he did not have a speaking slot. No U.S. ambassador attended in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Moscow said his attendance was a routine part of his ambassadorial duties.

Major U.S. companies who sent senior executives - including oil major Exxon, Boeing, Chevron and JPMorgan - were represented at a similar level to last year, but several delegates at the forum said they estimated the U.S. presence to be numerically bigger than in previous years.

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Vladimir Putin through the years
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Vladimir Putin through the years
P362575 05: A class photo with Vladimir Putin, (fourth row, second from left) dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Laski Diffusion)
368975 01: (AMERICAS ONLY) FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses for a photograph in this file photo with his parents Maria and Vladimir Putin in1985 just before his departure to Germany. Putin was sworn in as Russia''s second democratically elected president May 7, 2000, pledging to restore Russia as a great power. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers)
ITAR-TASS: LENINGRAD, USSR. Vladimir Putin seen with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Maria. File photo from family archive was taken in spring 1985. (Photo ITAR-TASS) (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
St, petersburg mayor anatoly sobchak and austrian chancellor's wife christine vranitzky during a ceremony to name 'austria square' in downtown st, petersburg, austria has pledged to restore the square, future president of russia, vladimir putin, looks on, far left, september 1992. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
KRASNODAR, RUSSIA: Russian acting President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to a boy (R) during his visit to the Children's regional clinic hospital in Krasnodar 11 February 2000. Putin arrived in Krasnodar for a two-day visit to take a part in the All Russia Conference on emergency measures to stabilise and develop the Russian agro-industrial complex. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzbek president islam karimov helping rf president vladimir putin put on a traditional robe, uzbekistan, december 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura greet President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila outside of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY4: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (L) pose with their wives Ludmila Putin (2nd L) and Ana Botella before their lunch at Moncloa Palace June 14. Putin said he had no reason to believe the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was politically motivated but vowed to examine the case, which has stirred stormy protest in Moscow. (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Vladimir Putin - Politician, Mayor St. Petersburg, Russia - signs an agreement about the marketing of inventions. Second Mayor and Senator of Economics of Hamburg Hans-Juergen Krupp (right) (Photo by Ambor/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Moscow, russia, outgoing russian president boris yeltsin (r) shaking hands with russian prime minister and acting president vladimir putin (l) as he leaves moscow's kremlin, the seat of russian power,1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Russian prime minister vladimir putin seen casting his vote during the elections to the state duma, at the polling station #2026 in moscow's kosygina street,moscow, russia, december 19, 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
N362234 01: (FILE PHOTO) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov on August 16, 1999. President Boris Yeltsin announced on national television Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 that he had resigned and presidential elections will be held within 90 days to replace him. Yeltsin said he was stepping down immediately because he wanted Putin to succeed him. Putin, the country's most popular politician, immediately took control of the government and will serve as acting president until the elections. (photo by Laski Diffusion/Liaison Agency)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 7: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin watches the tactical exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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"We see a much larger number of people from the U.S., Canada," said Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a state body that works with foreign investors.

"There is a better understanding (among foreign investors) that sanctions really did not work, the Russian economy continues to grow, Russia represents an attractive market and people should work with Russia," he told Reuters.

Several U.S. delegates said that, politics aside, they were drawn to the forum by the fact the Russian economy had returned to growth after a slowdown.

The forum is a prestige project for Putin, a native of St Petersburg. Foreign executives typically use their presence to signal to the Kremlin their enthusiasm for investing in Russia.

In 2014, when the Ukraine crisis first started, U.S. cabinet officials including Secretary of State John Kerry made personal calls to chief executives of U.S. firms asking them not to attend, said a former U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The next year, senior U.S. officials below cabinet level were charged with persuading American executives not to attend, and in 2016, U.S. officials brought up the issue in a low-level manner, the former official said.

The account of those conversations was confirmed by a second former official who served in the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

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The guidance in later years was not necessarily to stay away, but that executives who did attend should keep their presence low-key, said several other people familiar with the discussions.

Ian Colebourne, who is CEO for Deloitte in the Commonwealth of Independent States and sits on the U.S.-Russia business council, said he was aware of officials giving guidance to executives in previous years, but added: "I haven't heard anything this year."

Two other sources familiar with the preparations for U.S. companies to attend also said there had been no guidance before this year's forum, in contrast to previous years.

GREEN LIGHT?

The lack of contact from the U.S. government this year is being interpreted among business executives as meaning: "You can go," said one of the two sources.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not receive any guidance from the administration about whether or not to participate in the event, a source with the Chamber said.

Still, some companies that did attend exercised caution, keeping a low profile.

The head of U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil, Darren Woods, did not join the table of panelists at the main oil session of the forum. It was chaired by the head of Kremlin oil major Rosneft, Igor Sechin, who is on the U.S. sanctions list.

Like his predecessor as Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, now Trump's Secretary of State, Woods made only brief remarks from the floor in a discussion about the energy industry.

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Woods declined to answer questions from Reuters. An Exxon representative said company policy was not to comment on the travel arrangements of its executives.

Among other U.S. companies at the forum, JPMorgan Chase & Co., sent Daniel Pinto, Chief Executive Officer of its corporate and investment business, while Boeing sent Bertrand-Marc Allen, president of its international arm.

U.S. oil major Chevron sent its vice president for business development, Jay Pryor. He was also at the forum last year. A company representative did not reply to questions about any guidance from the administration.

"Let's say the seniority of some of the teams is more senior this year, certainly compared to some prior years and that's a positive sign," Deloitte's Colebourne said of the U.S corporate presence.

Robert Dudley, chief executive of BP, a British company with substantial business in the United States, said his impression was that this year there were more representatives of U.S. companies at the forum than previously.

"That would suggest they are not feeling that kind of pressure," to curb their presence, he said. (Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova and Dmitry Zhdannikov in St Petersburg, Alexander Winning in Moscow, Yeganeh Torbati and Ginger Gibson in Washington and Gary McWilliams in Houston; editing by Andrew Roche)

(Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Maria Kiselyova)

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