Updated: 03/24/2014 11:08 PM
Created: 03/24/2014 8:40 PM KSTP.com
By: Stephen Tellier
From NSA leaker Edward Snowden to Ukraine and Syria to gay rights -- relations between Russia and the United States are at their lowest point since the Cold War. But right here in Minnesota, dozens of business people, government officials, and other stakeholders are about to begin trying to bring the two countries closer together.
The U.S. Russia Innovation Conference officially begins in St. Paul on Tuesday morning. The goal is to bring together American and Russian businesses, universities, and research facilities to foster innovation -- and boost the economies of both sides.
"Bringing those different perspectives together then open up new solutions that are very cost-effective," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
Ritchie is one of the driving forces behind the conference. He said Minnesota has been developing closer ties to Russia for years.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota's exports to Russia totaled $110 million in 2013. Thirty-six percent of that total was machinery, 21 percent was transportation equipment, and 18 percent was pharmaceutical products and medical equipment.
Local companies like Cargill, Ecolab, and Medtronic have significant presences in Russia. Carlson, 3M, and Thomson Reuters are among the sponsors of the conference.
But the event begins the day after the U.S. helped kick Russia out of the G8. Economic sanctions have targeted Russian business interests, and more could be on the way.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Ritchie if this is the best time for closer economic ties with Russia. He said keeping conversations going is the key.
"When Minnesota businesses see a real opportunity to grow our economy here, they go, 'Wow, that's important for us.' But perhaps more importantly, long term, it's people-to-people relationships that keep countries moving in a positive direction," Ritchie said.
He also said some American businesses are concerned about additional steps the U.S. government may take against Russia which could hamper the economic recovery.
Russia is only Minnesota's 29th largest trading partner -- sandwiched between Chile and Sweden. Russia's population is five times larger than those two countries combined. You could look at that two ways: Either Russia isn't an important economic partner for Minnesota, or there's a ton of untapped potential for growth in that relationship.