Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Rome where he is set to hold talks with Italian leaders and Pope Francis, in a possible prelude to a papal trip to Russia.
The July 4 visit will include talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as the Russian leader seeks to bolster economic ties with NATO and EU member Italy.
Conte has pressed for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven, which suspended Moscow as its eighth member after its 2014 seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, an action not recognized by the world community.
In an interview with TASS, Conte said that "I will be granted with an opportunity to pay President Putin back with the same hospitality. I was welcomed very warmly in Moscow last October. It will be possible to discuss bilateral relations and the ways to enhance them."
Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who has expressed admiration for Putin, has called for an easing of EU sanctions imposed against Moscow for the Crimea annexation and for its support of the separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Putin said in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera that he appreciates "Italy's commitment to strengthening mutual understanding in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
"We have a special relationship, tested by time, with Italy," he said.
Putin is expected to arrive at the Vatican in the early afternoon for his third audience with Pope Francis after 2013 and 2015. The talks are expected to cover global affairs and relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.
The meeting will come a day ahead of a scheduled two-day visit to the Vatican by Ukraine's Catholic leaders to discuss the crisis in their country.
In 2015, the pope urged Putin to make a "sincere and great effort" to help bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists has killed some 13,000 people since April 2014.
Some observers have said the visit by Putin could set the groundwork for a potential visit by the pontiff to Russia, but Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said on July 3 that "for the time being a possible invitation for the pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda."
After the Vatican meeting, Putin will meet the Italian president and prime minister and attend a conference on Italian-Russian dialogue at the Foreign Ministry.
TASS quoted Kremlin Aide Yuri Ushakov as telling reporters that “a whole range” of trade-related documents will be signed on the sidelines of Putin’s meeting with the Italian leaders, without being specific.
There have been persistent tensions between Russia and the West over issues including the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, Moscow’s alleged meddling into other countries’ elections, and the nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern British city of Salisbury.
There is also uncertainty over the fate of two U.S.-Russia arms-control treaties -- New START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Putin told Il Corriere della Sera that Russia is ready to step up dialogue with the United States over issues including disarmament.
"I think that reaching concrete measures in the field of disarmament would contribute to strengthen international stability. Russia has the political willingness to do it. Now it is up to the U.S." to decide, the Russian president said.
"Recently, it seems that Washington has started to reflect about stepping up dialogue with Russia over a wide strategic agenda," Putin added.