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Signs of Diplomatic Normalization as Italy’s Prime Minister Meets Putin in Moscow

Putin called Italy a “privileged partner” and “one of Russia’s most important partners in European matters”

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized economic ties Thursday as he welcomed Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the first major European leader to make an official visit to Moscow since Russia annexed Crimea a year ago.

<figcaption>Normalizing EU-Russia relations?</figcaption>
Normalizing EU-Russia relations?

Although Messrs. Putin and Renzi announced no new deals after a meeting in the Kremlin, the Russian leader called Italy a “privileged partner” and “one of Russia’s most important partners in European matters,” pointing to ties that span from energy to airliners.

The visit marked Mr. Renzi’s third meeting with Mr. Putin in four months, but his first in the Kremlin, the Italian prime minister said. Russia has been cultivating its long-established alliances in Europe in recent weeks, as the European Union struggles to maintain a united front in its opposition to Russia’s interventions in Ukraine.

During his visit Thursday, Mr. Renzi laid flowers on the bridge near the Kremlin where opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was gunned down late Friday.Western leaders have largely avoided Moscow since Russia annexed Crimea and then backed separatists fighting government forces in Ukraine’s east, plunging relations to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War. French President François Hollande dropped into Moscow in December and met Mr. Putin at an airport, and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades made a two-day visit at the end of February.

Russian state television presented the visit as a sign of a crack in the West’s front. The U.S. has called on allies not to conduct “business as usual” with Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told a senior EU official this week that any optimism over a cease-fire agreement sealed on Feb. 12 was premature.

Mr. Renzi, who met with Mr. Poroshenko in Kiev on Wednesday, said after the meeting that he had discussed the crisis in Ukraine, and hoped that the peace deal would help normalize ties.

He also called for a coordinated and “incisive” response to the crisis in Libya, saying Russia’s role could be crucial.

Italy has repeatedly issued calls for international action to help forge a political solution to the escalating conflict in Libya, where it has substantial economic interests.

“The role of Russia, for its history and its role in the United Nations Security Council, may be crucial,” Mr. Renzi told reporters.

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