Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is urging an end to European Union sanctions on Russia and said he is committed to boosting trade with Moscow, despite the sanctions.
On his first trip to Moscow since taking office in June, Conte on October 24 hailed Russia as an essential global player and invited Putin to visit Italy.
The Italian premier said he believes the split between the EU and Russia over the Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014 has lasted too long, and he would like to see the sanctions against Russia lifted.
"For Italy, the sanctions aren't the goal. They are an instrument that must be overcome as soon as possible," said Conte, the head of Italy's new populist governing coalition.
However, he declined to say if Rome is ready to veto a planned renewal of the sanctions expected to come before EU leaders in December.
"Italy would like to persuade other European countries that the only way forward is through dialogue," he said.
Conte held hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on October 24, and then the two looked on as officials signed a slew of trade and investment agreements aimed at overcoming a collapse in trade resulting from the EU's sanctions as well as from Moscow's retaliatory moves banning many European imports.
Bilateral trade has increased recently as the Russian economy has climbed out of recession, but it remains a fraction of what it was before EU sanctions were first imposed in 2014 over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
Most EU members, led by Germany, have said the sanctions must remain in place until Russia and Ukraine make progress toward ending the conflict. But Conte suggested the sanctions should be eased before then.
"The Ukrainian crisis has caused a split and blocked the dialogue," he said. "We can't allow that. We should leave that period behind. It already has lasted for too long."
Putin said Russian-Italian trade reached $24 billion last year, but he said that was less than half the nearly $54 billion total in 2013, the year before the EU sanctions took effect.
"Regrettably, Italy's niche in the Russian market has decreased, but the volume of our economic ties has remained strong," Putin said.
Several rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have crippled Western investment projects in Russia. Earlier this year, the Italian energy giant Eni abandoned a joint project with Russia's top state oil company Rosneft to tap Black Sea oil reserves.
Eni was also considering suspending another such venture in the Barents Sea, Russian news agencies reported.
Putin said the two countries nonetheless have maintained "businesslike, but also very warm relations."
"Despite the difficult times, our political contacts have remained on a high level," he said.
Conte's populist coalition includes the right-wing League party, which has called for a quick end to the EU sanctions on Russia, arguing they have hurt Italian exporters as much as Russian businesses.
League leader Matteo Salvini, a deputy prime minister who visited Russia earlier this month, has praised Putin and said Italy would lobby the EU to lift the sanctions.
The call for easing sanctions has been echoed by Italian businesses. The Italian agricultural lobby, Coldiretti, has called for an end to the EU sanctions as well as Russia's retaliatory ban on EU food imports, saying they have cost Italian food producers 1 billion euros since they were imposed.
Putin said Italian investment in Russia has continued despite the restrictions, with more than 500 Italian companies having recently invested about $5 billion in developing projects in energy, transport, high technology, food industries, and other sectors.
"We are ready to support the Italian companies that intend to develop cooperation with Russian partners," Conte said. "It's our duty to strengthen industrial cooperation with Russia."
Following their talks, Conte and Putin oversaw by video link the launch of a new factory to produce high-voltage electric motors designed by Italy's Nidec company for Russian industries. The factory was built by Nidec and its Russian partners in the Ural Mountains city of Chelyabinsk.
Russian and Italian business executives also signed cooperation agreements for shipbuilding, automobile industries, energy, and other sectors.