Auteur: Andrew Rettman
Renzi’s trip comes amid a prolonged lull in fighting in east Ukraine.
-Renzi told US leader (r) Obama he would back more Russia sanctions if need be (Photo: whitehouse.gov)
But at the same time, Nato estimates that some 12,000 Russian forces have massed in the region amid expectations that Putin will, sooner or later, launch an attack on Mariupol, a city in south-east Ukraine, in order to create a land bridge to Crimea, which he annexed last year.
Renzi’s visit is also overshadowed by the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last weekend.
The official agenda of the Renzi trip is to cover Ukraine, counter-terrorism, with a focus on Libya, and bilateral economic ties.
The Islamist radical group, Isis, has established a bridgehead in Libya, close to Italy’s southern coastline, and pledged to launch attacks against Europe.
But Putin, on a recent visit to Cairo, promised to help Egypt, one of Isis’ principal enemies, to combat the group.
Meanwhile, Italy imports some 30 percent of its gas from Russia and used to export around €11 billion of goods a year before the EU sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions entered into life.
Renzi is to meet Putin, as well as Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, and a delegation of some 130 Italian businessmen active in Russia.
The Italian leader himself requested that his press conference with Putin will not include any questions from press, the Italian news agency, AGI, reports.
He is the latest in a series of Russia-friendly EU leaders to meet the Putin.
Cyprus’ Nicos Anastasiades was in Moscow last month. Hungary’s Viktor Orban also welcomed Putin in Budapest in February, while Greece’s Alexis Tsipras is expected to attend a WWII memorial in the Russian capital in May.
Russian diplomats are, according to EU sources, lobbying all four of the EU countries to veto any renewal or extension of EU economic sanctions.
But Renzi is being careful not to look like a weak link.
He plans to lay flowers at the spot where Nemtsov was shot dead, in a murder attributed by several commentators to Russian nationalists trying to please Putin.
He visited Kiev on Wednesday where he pledged to protect Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”.
He also took part in a video conference with the US president, the French and German leaders, and the Polish EU Council chief earlier this week in a meeting which saw a promise of extra sanctions if Putin escalates the Ukraine conflict.
But Renzi’s political hygiene failed to impress some EU politicians.
The Polish centre-right MEP, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, vented eastern European sentiment on Twitter, saying on Wednesday that the Renzi-Putin event is “grotesque”.
On Libya and Isis, Saryusz-Wolski also noted the irony of “asking [a] state sponsor of terrorism for help to fight terrorism”.
Ukraine has designated Russia’s proxies in east Ukraine as terrorist entities, but the EU has so far declined to follow suit in the name of keeping open channels of communication with the leaders of militant groups which are likely to stay around in a future frozen conflict.
For his part, Alon Ben-Air, a scholar of international relations at New York University, told EUobserver the Isis threat in Libya is modest in nature.
“I don’t believe that Isis’ presence in Libya is a sign of strength. In fact, I believe it is the direct result of the losses it has sustained [in Iraq and Syria] in the last couple of months”, he said.
“Creating another theatre is designed to distract the focus from Iraq and Syria, rather, and obscure its losses both in men and territory.”
“Isis can be seriously degraded and ultimately it will be almost destroyed, but only if significant ground troops from various Arab countries and even the US engage Isis directly. Without such ground forces the phenomenon of Isis will be with us for a long time … [But] that said, its days of glory will soon be a thing of the past.”