WASHINGTON -- The White House has pressured the chief executives of some of the largest U.S. energy, financial and industrial corporations to cancel plans to attend an international economic forum in Russia to be hosted by President Vladimir Putin later this month, the latest effort to isolate Moscow in retaliation for its Ukraine intervention.
The top executives of such giants as Alcoa, Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, ConocoPhillips and other multinational companies with business in Russia have either pulled out of the conference or plan to do so after an intensive lobbying campaign by President Barack Obama's advisers. Corporate officials predicted that nearly every American CEO will now skip the forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The personal phone calls from White House officials and Cabinet secretaries have put the executives in an awkward position because they do not want to run afoul of the Obama administration, but they are acutely aware that Mr. Putin takes roll at this event, which has become an important showcase for him on the world stage. Hoping to avoid alienating Mr. Putin at the risk of jeopardizing their operations and tens of thousands of employees in Russia, several companies are sending lower-level executives based in Moscow or Europe to the May 22-24 meeting.
The St. Petersburg forum, styled as Russia's answer to the annual economic meeting in Davos, Switzerland, has thus become the latest battleground in the geopolitical contest of wills between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin over the fate of Ukraine. Although sanctions imposed by Mr. Obama do not legally preclude U.S. companies from sending representatives to the gathering, administration officials have told the top executives that personally participating would make them propaganda tools for Mr. Putin, who could use their presence to refute the notion that he has been isolated internationally.
The pullout could be embarrassing for Mr. Putin, who personally attends the forum. As of Monday, the forum's website was still trumpeting participation by some U.S. executives who now plan to skip the session. A picture of Goldman Sachs' chairman and chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, for instance, was shown on the site, even as a company executive privately said "there's almost zero chance" that he will go unless the Ukraine situation suddenly reverses course.
Among top administration officials who have been working the phones are Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser and liaison to business; Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and national economic adviser Jeffrey Zients.
"They've basically been saying, 'We're not telling you what to do, but it wouldn't look good,' " said an executive at one of the companies who received such a call, and who, like others, declined to be named to avoid offending either side in the dispute.
Some industry officials privately expressed frustration at being caught in the middle, and argued that cutting off business ties would worsen relations between the United States and Russia, rather than improve them. They said European or Asian competitors may simply fill the void.
"Nobody wants to get caught on the wrong side of anybody in this if they can help it," one such official said. "Some companies are trying to do their best to avoid getting trapped in this minefield."
The White House said U.S. government officials will not attend the St. Petersburg forum this year.
"Obviously, companies will have to make their own decisions, but we believe that the most senior business executives traveling to Russia to make high-profile appearances with Russian government officials at events such as this would send an inappropriate message, given Russia's behavior," White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said.
The situation reflects a drastic turnaround from a year ago, when the Obama administration encouraged participation to strengthen trade ties. Chief executives of General Electric, Deere & Co., Citigroup, MetLife, Alcoa, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Visa, Chevron, Hill & Knowlton Strategies and Cisco Systems attended last year.