Russian President Vladimir Putin says he hopes the leadership of the populist government of Italy will help persuade the European Union’s new chiefs to ease their policy towards sanctions imposed on Moscow.
"We hope that Italy will consistently and clearly speak out about its position [to improve relations] and battle for what was said in public many times, namely for the complete return to normal relations between Russia and Europe as a whole," Putin told a news conference on July 4 during his one-day visit to Rome.
Putin -- speaking after holding talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, President Sergio Mattarella, and Pope Francis -- said Russia had observed Italy's efforts to improve frayed relations between the EU and Moscow, but fully understood the effort has faced pushback from some European capitals.
He insisted that while Russia has been hurt by EU sanctions, Europe has also faced financial losses.
"European nations missed the chance to sell billions worth of goods on the Russian market," Putin told a joint news conference with Conte. "This means losses for all of us."
The European Union imposed sanctions on Moscow in 2014 following its seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia separatists battling Kyiv government forces in eastern Ukraine.
Following days of intense negotiations, the EU on July 2 nominated candidates for the bloc's top jobs over the coming years -- including German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to head the European Commission.
The leaders of Italy’s right-wing government have expressed hopes of improving relations with Russia and admiration for Putin, with some calling for an end to the sanctions.
Conte called the sanctions on Russia a temporary measure and that Rome was working to establish conditions for improved ties.
Putin said it was up to Ukraine, not Russia, to resolve the bitter dispute between the two countries, but Conte appeared to push back on that contention.
"When President Putin, my friend Vladimir, says it doesn't all depend on Russia, he is too modest. The truth is Russia can play a major role in overcoming this dispute," he said.
"We need to create the conditions for mutual trust."
Putin called his hour-long meeting at the Vatican with the pope "substantive."
The Vatican said in a statement that the two addressed "various questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia."
They also discussed "the ecological question and various themes relating to current international affairs, with particular reference to Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela,” it added.
Russia’s state-run TASS news agency said Putin also held a “friendly meeting” with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the airport in Rome as he wrapped up his official visit.