Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi greeted each other as friends only days after Russia was treated as a pariah at the Group of Seven meeting in Germany. But Mr. Renzi gave no sign that he would break ranks with Western countries and lobby for the easing of sanctions against Russia, which may be ratcheted up if the conflict in Ukraine escalates.
Mr. Putin's one-day, whirlwind tour of Italy saw him meet Mr. Renzi on Wednesday morning at the Russian pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan and, in the evening in Rome, Pope Francis. Displaying his notoriously poor etiquette on diplomatic missions, Mr. Putin arrived at both meetings about an hour late.
He was also due to see Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his old friend Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister whose long friendship – and late-night party sessions – with the Russian leader helped to nurture deep commercial and cultural links between the two countries.
Before his meeting the pontiff, Mr. Putin came under pressure from the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, to take a forceful diplomatic stance with Mr. Putin and Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Responding to questions at an event in Rome not related to Mr. Putin's Italian visit, Mr. Hackett said that the Vatican "could say more about concerns on territorial integrity…Maybe this is an opportunity where the Holy Father can privately raise concerns."
After the Pope met with Mr. Putin, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the talks had concentrated on the Middle East and the Ukraine conflict, with the Pope calling for a "sincere and great effort" aimed at bringing peace to the troubled region.
Ukraine's ambassador to Italy, Yevhen Perelygin, had told Italy's Ansa news agency that he hoped Pope Francis would tell Mr. Putin that "he who speaks of peace while conducting war is a hypocrite."
The Pope has come under attack from some Catholics, notably Ukrainian and Greek Catholics, for taking a wishy-washy stance toward Russia since its annexation of Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine, early last year. In February, the Pope described the violence in eastern Ukraine as "fratricidal," even though many, perhaps most, Ukrainians blame Russian aggression for the bloody dismemberment of their country.
At Expo 2015, Mr. Putin and Mr. Renzi launched charm offensives that would be hard to imagine in any other European country. Evidently trying to deliver the message to the world that Russia still has a friend in Western Europe, Mr. Putin called Italy "a great partner of Russia in Europe."
For his part, Mr. Renzi praised "the traditional Russian-Italian friendship" and said the two countries have to co-operate on international issues, "starting with the global terrorist threat." But Mr. Renzi also spoke of "elements of division" over Ukraine.
Mr. Putin rejects all accusations from the G7 and other countries that Russia is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. He has said the government in Kiev is responsible for the latest flare-up in fighting and is using it to put pressure on the West to tighten the sanctions. Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Renzi said full implementation of the Minsk peace accord was crucial. "Unfortunately, the Minsk agreements are not being implemented fully, only selectively," Mr. Putin said at a press conference after his Expo tour.
At the close of the weekend G7 summit in Germany's Bavaria, U.S. President Barack Obama blasted Russia's "wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire."
The meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Renzi underscored the traditionally easy relationship between the two countries even as Russia has been accused of relaunching the Cold War. Three months ago, Mr. Renzi became the first European leader to go to Moscow for a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin since the Crimea episode. While Italy supports the sanctions against Russia, Matteo Salvini, head of Italy's right-wing, anti-immigrant Northern League opposition party, has praised Mr. Putin and criticized the sanctions against Russia.
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, said that it's evident that Mr. Putin was using his Italian trip "to show that he can still collaborate with Western Europe….and that he's not the war-mongering president in the way the G7 depicts him."
Mr. Pavoncello said that Italy's close ties to Russia go back decades. During the Cold War, Italy had one of the biggest Communist parties outside the Soviet Union. "This allowed quite a long understanding between the two countries," he said, noting that the Vatican also kept a dialogue going between Moscow and the West during the Cold War.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Berlusconi were particularly close and commercial links expanded greatly between the two countries when Mr. Berlusconi was in power. "Berlusconi had a very important role in creating business links" between Russia and Italy, Mr. Pavoncello said. Italy is one of the biggest importers of Russian energy and one of the biggest exporters of technology and manufactured goods to Russia.