Alexei Druzhinin, Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered thousands of his country's troops who were posted near the Ukrainian border to return to their permanent bases. A Kremlin spokesman said Putin had ordered approximately 17,600 troops to return home from the southern region of Rostov. The withdrawal may be a sign of goodwill ahead of Putin's trip to Milan on Thursday, where he is set to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European Union leaders.

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a series of meetings with Western leaders focusing on Ukraine during his trip to Italy, the Kremlin said Wednesday.

Attending this week's Europe-Asia summit in Milan offers Putin the first chance to discuss the Ukrainian crisis with Western leaders since his trip to France in June to attend the D-Day anniversary.

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed a series of economic sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and support for a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine. High-level contacts have been sharply curtailed amid the worst Russia-West crisis since the Cold War, and Putin hasn't traveled to Europe since a brief visit to Vienna in late June.

Presidential foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said that Putin will meet Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and attend a dinner involving other leaders. They last met face-to-face at the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro in July.

Merkel said she expects to discuss the fulfillment of a ceasefire deal signed last month in Minsk, which has helped reduce hostilities but so far has failed to completely halt fighting.

"I expect an open exchange of views and progress in implementing the Minsk agreement ... we will talk about how we can transform the Minsk agreement into reality," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

Late last month, Merkel said that the EU still wasn't considering removing the sanctions because of ongoing fighting.

On Friday, Putin will have breakfast with the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Ukraine and the European Union that will focus on Ukraine. A separate meeting involving Putin and the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine is also being considered.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he's pinning big hopes on the meetings in Milan. He spoke with Putin over the phone Tuesday to discuss preparations for the talks.

The Kremlin said that the two leaders agreed to discuss the gas dispute among other issues. Much of the Russian gas supplied to the EU passes via pipelines crossing Ukraine, and the pricing dispute has raised fears of a supply crisis in Ukraine and the EU.

European Union energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger plans to bring together the Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers for talks in Berlin next Tuesday aimed at securing a temporary deal to ensure supplies through the winter.

In an apparent show of goodwill before the trip to Milan, Putin over the weekend ordered 17,600 Russian troops to pull back from areas near the border with Ukraine and return to their home bases.

Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of fueling the insurgency with weapons and fighters, allegations Moscow has rejected.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.