Vladimir Putin makes a rare international outing on Wednesday with a high-profile visit to Italy and the Vatican two days after the G7 threatened him with tougher sanctions over Ukraine.
The Russian President is due in Milan to visit his country’s pavilion at the World Expo and will travel on to Rome, where an audience with Pope Francis is expected to focus on Ukraine amid fears a second ceasefire agreed in February is falling apart.
In Milan, Putin will be greeted by Italian premier Matteo Renzi, one of the G7 leaders who signed up to Monday’s warning that the major powers “stand ready to take further restrictive measures to increase cost on Russia should its actions so require”.
The statement reflected concern about a recent flare-up in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where the West accuses Russia of providing game-changing military support to pro-Moscow rebels who control parts of two Russian-speaking regions.
Ukraine this week said Russian aid had allowed the separatist forces in the east to establish a 42,500-strong fighting force.Put in says any Russians fighting alongside the rebels are volunteers “answering a call of the heart”.
Italy has long had an important economic relationship with Russia and political ties were sufficiently close prior to the eruption of the Ukraine crisis for Russia’s Baltic neighbours to object to an Italian, Federica Mogherini, being named the EU’s foreign policy chief last year amid claims she would be too soft on Moscow.
According to the foreign ministry, Italy is Russia’s third-biggest trading partner after China and Germany. Exchanges between the two countries were worth just over 30 billion euros ($33.9 billion) last year, down by over a billion euros from 2013 due to sanctions and their knock-on effect on the Russian economy.
Analysts say Putin’s meetings with Renzi, recently-elected President Sergio Mattarella and the pope will play well to his domestic audience, giving the impression he remains a player on the global stage.The Vatican has been criticised, notably by the Rome-aligned Greek Catholic minority in Ukraine, for failing to overtly criticise Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.