Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday hosted Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has been keen on strengthening ties with Russia as his government is crossing swords with Brussels over Rome's 2019 budget.
Conte, on his first trip to Russia, began talks with Putin in the Kremlin by saying that the two countries have managed to preserve the "quality and volume of our ties." He invited Putin to visit Italy in the near future.
Italy is currently Russia's sixth-largest trading partner, with growth sustained over the past two years, Putin told Conte at their meeting. Both Putin and Conte expressed intentions to increase ties between their countries, according to an official transcript. Earlier in the day, Conte met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who voiced hope that his visit will give a new impulse to Russian-Italian cooperation.
Ties between Russia and Italy have been badly damaged by European Union sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and by Moscow's retaliatory moves. Bilateral trade has slowly increased in recent years as the Russian economy has climbed out of recession, but it still remains a fraction of what it was before EU penalties triggered by Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and Russian support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Several rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have crippled investment projects. Earlier this year, the Italian energy giant ENI bailed out of a joint project with Russia's top state oil company, Rosneft, to tap Black Sea oil reserves. ENI was also considering a suspension of another such venture in the Barents Sea, Russian news agencies reported.
"Regrettably, Italy's niche in the Russian market has decreased but the volume of our economic ties have remained strong," Putin said as he greeted Conte, as reported by The Associated Press (AP). "Despite the difficult times, our political contacts have remained on a high level."
Italy's populist ruling parties support an end to EU sanctions against Russia as Italy has been at loggerheads with the EU leadership over plans to break national budget rules. The populist coalition in Italy on Tuesday denied any modification to its next year budget despite the rejection of the document by the European Commission, an unprecedented move in the history of the European Union. Conte's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, lashed out against the anti-Russia sanctions last week and said he feels more "at home" in Moscow than in other European capitals.
In June, Conte was the only supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump's suggestion at a G7 summit in Canada that Russia should be re-admitted into the bloc. Constituent parties of Italy's populist government, which came to power this year, have in the past questioned NATO military campaigns and advocated for a friendlier approach towards Russia.