In Italy, Putin hears warm words – and chalks up a win

No new trade deals or policy changes came out of Putin's visit with the Italian premier. But Russia sees his state visit as another step towards outlasting European resolve on sanctions against Moscow.

Antonio Calanni/AP
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi (r.) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of a press conference at the 2015 Expo near Milan, Italy, on Wednesday.

Just days after receiving a stern rebuke from the Group of Seven major industrial democracies, Vladimir Putin got handed a different message from G7 member Italy: a warm welcome and talks about expanding trade and political cooperation.

The Italians see it as taking a "dual track" with Russia – maintaining European solidarity on sanctions and tough criticism of Russia's role in Ukraine, while also keeping channels of communications open with Moscow.

But the Russians appear to be taking the longer view.

Though Europe is almost certain to renew sanctions later this month behind a unanimous vote, Russian analysts see Mr. Putin's friendly meetings in Rome and elsewhere across Europe as fostering a growing European uncertainty about tensions with Russia. If the Kremlin is patient, the thinking goes, sanctions will fall as European desire for normalization overwhelms that for solidarity.

Although Putin was over an hour late for his appointment with Pope Francis – the second time he's kept a pope waiting – and received a mild papal scolding on the need to work harder for peace, Russian media conveyed the Kremlin's overall satisfaction at the visit. Putin spoke of a "special relationship" between Russia and Italy, while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pledged to step up economic cooperation in areas not covered by sanctions, and lauded Russia as a "great country" with which dialogue must continue.

Many in Moscow say that Putin's main message, that sanctions have cost Italian business nearly $6 billion in profits, landed on increasingly receptive ears. Italy is Russia's third-largest trading partner, after China and Germany, with about $33 billion in turnover last year.

"It's striking that on one day President Obama describes Russia as an outcast, a virtual leper in Europe, and a couple days later Putin is received in such a hospitable manner by a leading European country," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs commission of Russia's upper house of parliament. "I've been in Italy myself recently, and got the clear message that Italian businesspeople and many politicians are tired of these sanctions. They understand it's a lot of unnecessary sacrifice."

Uncertainty in Europe over sanctions

Putin has enjoyed modest success over the past year in courting European Union countries that dissent from anti-Russia sanctions, including Hungary, Greece and Austria.

But no one, not even in Russia, thinks the Kremlin's charm offensive has convinced even a single EU member to break European solidarity and block the extension of sanctions when the issue comes up at an EU summit later this month.

Still, many experts in Moscow are pointing to the results of a new Pew poll, which shows Europeans deeply divided over the desirability of standing up to Russia over Ukraine, and even who is to blame for the crisis. Only in Poland did a clear majority, 57 percent, blame Russia for the conflict.

"We hear these claims that Putin is trying to drive a wedge between European countries, or pull them away from the US, but it's all nonsense. The divisions are already there," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Russia hasn't the ability to break up Europe, and it doesn't want to."

Patient and steady

"Putin is visiting these countries to reconstruct our direct relationships with them. It's a good time for it, because he can see that public opinion is shifting, there are new winds blowing," Mr. Mukhin says. "There are reasons to expect that he will pay similar visits to Germany and France in the near future."

Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy expert, says that Putin's approach will be patient and steady.

"We understand that the Europeans have two things they are clinging to: the need to display solidarity among themselves, and the need to keep close relations with the US. The confrontation with Russia is popular in northern Europe and Britain, not so popular in other places, such as Italy. But, on the whole, the determination to keep this up is wearing thin. And Russia can afford to wait [for sanctions to end]," he says.

Asked whether anti-Russian moods might not intensify in Europe should there be a breakdown of the Minsk peace accord – jointly sponsored by France, Germany, and Russia – and a fresh upsurge of fighting breaks out in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Karaganov says the pattern of Europe's response is already established.

"We have seen this go around a few times already. The Europeans sleepwalked into this Ukraine crisis, and now they are re-thinking the price tag. This situation in Ukraine will be going on for years to come, and nothing is going to be resolved there." Europe and Russia can find new terms of co-existence, even with that crisis going on. "But it will take time."

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