Never mind the Ukraine crisis and Washington’s sanctions against Moscow: US automakers say the Russian market is their next big frontier.
Russia is simply too large and too important for carmakers to ignore, academics and analysts said last week.
“The Russian market is going to be larger than Germany,” said John Branch, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
Branch said the structure of the Russian auto industry is in flux, as the demand for imports increases despite barriers imposed by the Russian government.
However, that means that US automakers, particularly those with global ambitions, simply cannot afford to ignore the potential of Russia’s market, despite its volatile nature.
Branch was speaking at a conference at the University of Michigan focusing on the opportunities and hurdles for US carmakers to sell to and in Russia.
General Motors Co is already partly involved. It has invested in a joint venture with AvtoVaz, which builds the Lada, Russia’s most popular automotive brand.
However, the Lada brand is a holdover from the Soviet era and their sales are mostly concentrated in what Branch said were third and fourth-tier cities and rural areas.
In major cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, consumers are described as becoming more brand-conscious.
They like imported cars and have developed a preference for small sport utility vehicles that can navigate the country’s rugged roads and streets, he said.
GM-AvtoVaz produces the Chevrolet Niva, a mini-SUV popular within Russia and exported to neighboring countries formerly part of the Soviet Union.
David Teolis, an economist with General Motors, said that predictions about the growth of the Russian market have to be regarded cautiously.
The slow expansion of the massive country’s economy and Russian middle class since 2008 is hindering sales growth.
Russian car sales dropped by 50 percent in 2009 in the wake of the global economic crisis, but grew briskly to reach nearly 3 million units in 2012.
However, last year, they dropped by 5.5 percent as the Russian economy hit the brakes, and are expected to fall again this year.
The chronic air of crisis that surrounds the country also has hurt Russia’s economic development.
The cuts to its economic growth forecast, 0.5 percent this year or less according to the Russian Ministry of Finance, even without pressure from sanctions, raise questions about the potential for the automobile sector to quickly expand, as China’s has.
“Russia needs to become a normal country,” Teolis said.
Daniel Russell, a former US diplomat who serves as president of the US-Russia Business council, said even with the current crisis over Ukraine, Russia is simply too important a country for US businesses to ignore.
Relations between the two sides could actually benefit from strong commercial ties, he said.
For instance, Russell said that Moscow is now involved in negotiations aimed at keeping North Korea in check and in nuclear talks with Iran.
“There has been a dramatic jump in the Russian economy in the last 10 years,” he said.
And it is doubtful that other countries are willing to forgo business with Russia.
The US pressure for sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea has run into that fact.
Western European countries that have closer business and financial ties with Russia have been more reticent to ratchet up sanctions on Moscow.