FRANKFURT -- New Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess has a fresh headache to contend with as he settles in to the job.
The German automaker’s ties to GAZ Group, the vehicle maker owned by billionaire Oleg Deripaska, could expose the world’s biggest auto manufacturer to the U.S. crackdown on Russian oligarchs and companies.
Diess, speaking Friday as he took over as CEO, implied that Volkwagen still wasn’t clear how its activities in Russia will be affected by the sanctions announced last week.
“Of course, we’re concerned,” Diess told reporters at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg. “If sanctions were to be imposed we would of course have to review our business relationship” with GAZ.
The German automaker’s partnership with Deripaska, one of seven wealthy Russians targeted by new U.S. business prohibitions, is a key part of its expansion into Russia, which includes a 300 million euro ($370 million) investment at GAZ’s Gorky plant in Nizhny Novgorod. The site has been assembling Jettas and Skoda Yeti models since 2011, and VW has agreed to start supplying engines to the Russian company’s commercial-vehicle business. Deripaska’s Russian Machines Corp. declined to comment.
Volkswagen last year extended the partnership through 2025 and signed an initial agreement to consider a deeper trucks collaboration. The company has held talks on taking a stake in the Russian counterpart, the country’s largest producer of commercial vehicles. It’s also discussed supplying truck cabins from VW’s Brazilian unit and working together with GAZ on delivery vans.
The new sanctions come at a time of recovering Russian vehicle demand following a dramatic contraction. Under last year’s agreement, VW is due to start supplying some 200,000 engines over five years from 2019 to GAZ for use in light commercial vehicles.
The U.S. intends to to punish Russia for actions in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, and for attempting to subvert Western democracies. Eight out of 12 companies listed by the U.S. Treasury Department are connected to Deripaska -- an ally of Vladimir Putin -- including his United Co. Rusal and En+Group Plc. The restrictions are designed to make it almost impossible for Deripaska’s empire to do business in U.S. dollars.
The measures prompted a selloff across Russian equities and a plunge in the ruble, while analysts at Citigroup warned the move sets a new precedent that could ensnare "any Russian company."
VW’s other operations in the country include a vehicle plant and engine manufacturing, while Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz luxury-car unit started building a factory in the country last year. BMW Group has said it is considering a production facility in Russia