MOSCOW — Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Moscow Thursday for talks focusing on Russia-EU ties, which have been badly strained by the Ukrainian crisis.
With Russia-West ties at their lowest point since the Cold War times, most European Union leaders have shunned Moscow. Renzi's trip reflects his desire to improve bilateral economic ties, which have been hurt by the EU sanctions against Russia and Moscow's retaliatory moves.
Renzi told Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of their talks Thursday that he wanted to discuss Russia's relations with the European Union along with other issues, including violence in Libya.
Putin hailed an "active political dialogue" with Italy, and said that bilateral economic ties remained strong despite the damage inflicted by the EU sanctions and Italy has remained Russia's fourth-largest trading partner.
"Italy of our most privileged partners in Europe and the world," Putin said. "Our trade and economic ties have remained in a very good shape, despite some losses in connection with well-known developments."
The U.S. and the EU said they could lift some of their sanctions only if Russia fully meets conditions of the Feb. 12 peace deal for eastern Ukraine, and kept the door open for more sanctions if Moscow fails to do so. The West has accused Russia of backing the insurgents in eastern Ukraine with troops and weapons, the accusations Moscow denies.
The sanctions coupled with slumping oil prices have pushed the Russian economy into recession this year, and the ruble has lost half of its value against the dollar.
Russia has responded to the U.S. and EU sanctions with a ban on most Western food, and Italy, a major food exporter, has been hit particularly hard. Italy has also suffered because of a sharp drop in the number of Russian tourists due to the devaluation of the ruble.
Putin visited Milan in October for a Europe-Asia summit. Renzi said in an interview with Russian media before his visit that Putin is welcome to again visit Milan, which hosts an international trade fair.
Before the talks, Renzi laid flowers at the place where prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on Friday night on a bridge near the Kremlin. Kremlin critics blamed the government, while Putin called the killing a provocation aimed at destabilizing Russia.