Vladimir Putin Criticizes Ukraine Sanctions

Barely two days after Europe’s most powerful leaders presented a common front on Russian sanctions, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia swept into Italy on Wednesday, a pointed reminder that European unity against him is fragile and that efforts to isolate him have brought only mixed success.

Mr. Putin has always found a comfort zone in Italy, which has important trade and energy ties to Russia. He began his day in Milan, where he toured Russia’s exhibition at Expo Milano 2015, the world’s fair, and also met with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. He flew to Rome and was scheduled to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, his second audience with him in the past 18 months.

At a news conference in Milan, Mr. Putin criticized European sanctions, saying that Italian companies had unfairly suffered, with defense contracts worth 1 billion euros now frozen. He also contested European claims that Russia has deliberately violated the Minsk peace agreements for eastern Ukraine, instead blaming the Ukrainian government for not upholding the deal.

“Unfortunately, the Minsk agreements are not being implemented fully, only selectively,” Mr. Putin said.

At the Vatican, Mr. Putin and Francis were expected to focus on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, an issue of mutual concern. Earlier in the day, the top American diplomat to the Vatican urged Francis to raise concerns about Russia’s role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“Perhaps the Holy Father can raise this concern privately,” said Kenneth Hackett, the United States ambassador to the Holy See. “It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents, and that there are Russian troops inside the Ukraine. This is a very serious situation.”

The European Union instituted economic sanctions against Russia last summer, as a response to its annexation of Crimea several months earlier. Sanctions have expanded as European and American officials have blamed Mr. Putin for deliberately stoking instability by sending Russian troops into eastern Ukraine.

At a two-day summit in Germany that ended Monday, leaders of the Group of 7 industrialized nations reaffirmed their support for sanctions, as President Obama praised European resolve and called for even tougher measures if Mr. Putin did not abide by terms of the cease-fire. European leaders are expected to formally renew sanctions at a meeting later this month.

But support for sanctions has weakened in many European countries, including Italy, and Mr. Putin has sought to exploit the political divisions and nurture bilateral alliances, especially with countries on Europe’s periphery. He is talking with Greece about a partnership on a gas pipeline running through Turkey, while he exerts influence in countries such as Hungary, where he has been linked to far-right political parties.

“The G-7 shows he is more and more isolated from the big member states of the European Union,” said Stefan Meister, an analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. “He is trying to engage with the weaker parts of the European Union, like Greece or Hungary. Maybe he is also trying to engage with Italy.”

In Italy, Mr. Renzi has pursued a balancing act. Italy’s economy, already struggling, has suffered from reciprocal sanctions invoked by Russia against Europe. One study estimated that Italy would lose 3.7 billion euros in exports to Russia from 2014 to this year. In March, Mr. Renzi made an official visit to Moscow, the first major European leader to do so since the Crimea annexation, though Mr. Renzi also visited Kiev on the same trip and met with President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine.

Yet Mr. Renzi is also seeking a bigger role in European affairs and has endorsed European sanctions, while also attending the Group of 7 summit in Germany.

“Italy has no intention of overriding any European decision, nor can it,” said Paola Mariani, associate professor of international and European law at Bocconi University in Milan. “But it can’t hurt to create a solid relationship with Russia, with hopes of returning to being a privileged economic partner one day.”

In Milan, Mr. Renzi described Russia as an important player in the fight against global terrorism and called for strict adherence to the Minsk agreements on Ukraine. At the welcoming ceremony, Mr. Renzi also alluded to the European standoff with Russia, citing the “difficult international situation, not just on account of issues that do not unite us but also for issues that should see us ever more on the same side in a very complicated international scenario, starting with the global threat of terrorism.”

Marco Di Liddo, a senior analyst with the Center for International Studies, an Italian research institute, said merely holding the meeting with the popular pontiff was a boon for the Russian leader, as a demonstration that international relations are not made only in “exclusive clubs named G-7 or G-20.”

“He wants to show that he is not isolated,” Mr. Di Liddo said.

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