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Italian, Russian leaders hold talks over EU-Russia ties, Ukraine crisis

Trade ties were on the table when Italian Prime Minister Renzi and Russian President Putin met in Moscow. But military maneuvers around the Black Sea and the ongoing Ukraine conflict were no doubt on the leaders' minds.

The Italian leader traveled to Moscow in hopes of mending ties with Russia, and to encourage Russia to cooperate with efforts to stabilize Ukraine.

Both leaders said they hoped a ceasefire agreement agreed to last month would stabilize relations between Russia and the West.

"Our countries have the opportunity to further expand our cooperation," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in a statement after the talks.

The West has accused Russia of supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia continues to deny the claim. The European Union and many Western nations have placed harsh restrictions on Russia, to which the nation retaliated with its own sanctions. This has strained Russian-European relations, putting them at their lowest point since the Cold War.

Prior to the meeting, Renzi put flowers at the spot where vocal Kremlin critic Boris Netsov was shot and killed on Friday night. Russian President Vladimir Putinhas called the murder provocative and aimed at destabilizing the Russian government.

Trading partners

A major food exporter, Italy has been especially impacted by the sanctions, as well as from a sudden drop in the number of Russian tourists visiting the country.

Putin praised the "active political dialogue" between the two countries, saying Italy remains Russia's fourth-largest trading partner.

"Our trade and economic ties have remained in a very good shape, despite some losses in connection with well-known developments," Putin said, alluding to the situation in Ukraine.

The United States and European Union have said they may ease restrictions if Russia meets the conditions laid out in a February peace deal for Ukraine. But if they're not met, they have also threatened to step up the sanctions.

'Thousands' of troops

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cautioned on Thursday against a US-led plan to train Ukrainian troops at a base in western Ukraine.

Body of a victim killed in the Ukraine crisis

More than 6,000 people have died in the Ukraine crisis so far

Spokesman for the Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, said they had information up to 300 members of the US 173rd Airborne were moving to the Yavoriv base in the region of Lviv.

Last month the US military had said it planned to start training members of Ukraine's royal guard at the Yavoriv training center in March.

Neither the Ukrainian government or the United States commented on the plans.

At the same time Russian officials issued a denial that they had deployed "thousands" of troops to back-up pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

"These figures, which are plucked out of the air, of course demoralize and disorientate the international community," Lukashevich said.

On Wednesday, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told a US Congressional committee that Russia had sent "thousands and thousands" of troops to Ukraine, although she could not provide an exact number.

Military exercises raise tensions

Russia, meanwhile, confirmed it is holding military exercises for its air defense forces in the southwest.

The area includes regions bordering Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.

The drills are the latest in a series of military activities by Russia that have further strained ties between it and Western nations.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the exercises would go for more than a month, involving more than 2,000 troops and 500 weapons systems.

News agency Interfax reported that Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told journalists that the exercises paled in comparison to the activities of NATO forces.

"NATO states are using the situation in the southeast of Ukraine as an excuse to (…) move forward, closer to Russia's borders," he said.

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said Putin's "aim seems to be to turn Ukraine into a failed state and to suppress and discredit alternative voices in Russia, so as to prevent a Russian 'Maidan,'" referring to the Ukraine uprising that ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian, former President Viktor Yanukovych last year.

NATO warships flotilla arrived in the Black Sea on Wednesday to train with ships from the Bulgarian, Romanian and Turkish navies.

"NATO regularly deploys ships to the Black Sea for maritime awareness and training. This scheduled deployment, given Russia's continued assertiveness, carries an additional message of reassurance to allies in the region," a NATO official said.

The UN Security Council will meet Friday to take stock of the latest efforts to prop up a ceasefire in east Ukraine, diplomats have said.

an/sms (AP, AFP, DPA, Reuters)

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