Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has welcomed Russian president Putin in Milan, despite ongoing tensions with Western powers over Ukraine. Putin is also to meet Pope Francis and former Italian leader Berlusconi.
Prime Minister Renzi spoke of "traditional Italian-Russian friendship" while meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, at the beginning of Kremlin chief's diplomatic visit to Italy and the Vatican.
"The global agenda is very complicated at the moment. Russia is one of key participants in the process, alongside Europe and America", Renzi said during the diplomatic ceremony at Milan Expo on Wednesday.
Renzi also pointed to global challenges, including international terrorism.
"Based on those events, comes a necessity that key world countries, including the Russian Federation, which has always been a great country and will remain one, have key areas of cooperation. I am sure that this kind of dialogue will continue," Renzi said.
The Italian prime minister, however, showed no intention of breaking ranks with other Western powers, only days after G7 countries reaffirmed sanctions against Moscow at a summit in Germany.
Trade in jeopardy
Despite the G7 snub, the Kremlin still enjoys better relations with Rome than with most EU countries; Italy is Russia's third-biggest trading partner after China and Germany, with deals between the two countries topping 30 billion euros ($33.9 billion) last year.
On Wednesday, Putin expressed his wish that sanctions will eventually be lifted.
"I hope that sooner or later we will, nevertheless, move away from these limits we are facing today", Putin said, adding that the sanctions prevented Italian companies from receiving "a billion euros" and creating new jobs.
"It is simply necessary to find a way out - you could either lift the sanctions, or propose some other instruments, if you want to support your companies. We will find partners, but I believe it's not proper to give up established tools and mutually beneficial contracts," Putin said.
The EU is due to decide in two weeks whether economic sanctions over Russian annexation of Crimea will stay in place.
US appeal to Vatican
After meeting Renzi, the Russian president is to meet Pope Francis, where talks should focus on the fragile Ukraine ceasefire.
On Wednesday, The United States urged the Vatican to take a tougher stance on Russia.
"Maybe this is an opportunity where the Holy Father can privately raise concerns," said Ken Hackett, the US ambassador to the Vatican.
Putin is also expected to meet long-time Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, who is a personal friend of the Russian president.
dj/msh (Reuters, Interfax, AFP, AP)