ROME (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized historically strong ties with Italy before starting a one-day visit Thursday to Rome, including a meeting with Pope Francis.
Putin said in an interview published in Corriere della Sera that “we have a special relationship, tested by time, with Italy,” and he welcomed the populist government’s position that EU sanctions against Russia should be lifted.
The Russian president, on his first visit to Italy in four years, said in written responses to the Milan daily that Moscow didn’t want to extend countermeasures against European Union sanctions to Italy, but that it couldn’t react selectively within the World Trade Organization.
Putin said that economic relations with Italy, Russia’s fifth-largest trading partner, are expanding despite the sanctions, growing by 12.7% in 2018 to $26.9 billion. Italian investments in Russia so far this year have reached $4.7 billion, while Russian investments in Italy in the same period were $2.7 billion.
Putin, who arrived in Rome in the late morning, opened the visit at the Vatican, where he is meeting Francis for the third time in what some observers believed could be a prelude to a papal visit to Russia. No pope has ever set foot in Russia, but Putin’s foreign affairs adviser said the issue wasn’t on the agenda for the visit.
The meeting comes the day before Catholic leaders from Ukraine gather at the Holy See to discuss the continuing conflict there and the fallout from the schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. The Vatican said the aim is to lend support “in the delicate situation in which Ukraine finds itself.”
Last year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine formally split from the Russian Orthodox Church in a schism recognized by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The push for a full-fledged and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was bolstered by fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels.
Putin later meets with Italian President Sergio Mattarella followed by a Russia-Italy forum with Premier Giuseppe Conte and Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero. He will meet privately with a long-time friend, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, before returning to Moscow.
Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, who has made no secret of his admiration for Putin, will attend a dinner with Putin at Villa Madama. The two met face-to-face in Milan during Putin’s visit in 2014, in Salvini’s role as leader of the then-Northern League.
“The League and its leader Salvini are active supporters of a restoration of full cooperation between Russia and Italy. They have spoken for a quicker abolition of anti-Russia sanctions introduced by the U.S. and EU. Here our points of view are aligned,” Putin said.
Putin has acknowledged that U.S. and EU sanctions have cost Russia an estimated $50 billion since 2014, but he claims that the bloc’s nations have suffered even greater damage because of the restrictions.