ROME — Italy is always a popular early summer destination for those seeking a little warmth after a cold winter, so it is little surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to visit Italy on Wednesday. Pegged to “Russia Day” at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, he started his visit at the green grass-roofed Russian Pavilion, where Putin groupies held signs saying “Putin—Save the world!”
There he met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who joked to reporters that he was “worried about being offered Russian drinks” before the two went inside. The leaders then met for a bilateral chat before which Putin called sanctions against Russia “bad for business.”
Renzi went into the meeting in a precarious position, having just expressed devout solidarity with his global counterparts Angela Merkel and Barack Obama at the G7 summit in Germany on the global stance against Russia, agreeing to “stand ready to take further restrictive measures to increase cost on Russia should its actions so require.”
By seeming too welcoming to Putin, Renzi would essentially be seen to be backtracking. Instead, he reacted little to Putin’s comments at a joint press conference following the bilateral meeting, staring down at the podium when Putin answered a question about Russia’s relationship with the G7. “The relationship between Russia and the G7?” Putin quipped. “There is simply no relationship … When we were part of it we participated, we proposed an alternative point of view, but our partners have decided that they did not need us.”
Renzi then added, “It’s an objective truth that we need for Russia to be in the front row with EU and the U.S. to address global threats.”
In an exclusive interview with Corriere Della Sera ahead of the visit, Putin hinted that his intent was not to get back into bed with Europe. The paper asked if he likened his country’s relationship with Europe to an illicit affair.
“First, about the mistress. In this kind of a relationship with a woman, that is, if you assume no obligations, you have no right to claim any obligations from your partner,” he said, referring to Russia’s relationship with Europe. “We have never viewed Europe as a mistress. I am quite serious now. We have always proposed a serious relationship. But now I have the impression that Europe has actually been trying to establish material-based relations with us, and solely for its own gain.”
Putin then flew by private jet to Rome, where he went directly to Vatican City to meet Pope Francis, albeit more than an hour later than scheduled, keeping the aging pope waiting for his evening meal. Ahead of the private meeting, a Kremlin spokesperson told reporters that he would tell the Pope what really happened with Ukraine. “If the pope expresses interest, I have no doubt that the president will be ready to clarify in detail the position of Russia in the Ukrainian crisis.”
Putin and the pope spoke for 50 minutes during the private audience, and although there are no official minutes from the encounter, local press reported that Francis welcomed Putin with the word “wilkommen” which is German for welcome, and made the rest his public comments in German, raising eyebrows that perhaps Francis was making a not-so-subtle Merkel reference. (Or it might be nothing more than Francis using a shared language; Putin speaks fluent German from his days in the KGB in East Germany.)
Putin then presented the pope with a framed embroidery work sewn with gold thread. Francis gave Putin a medallion with the angel of peace on it, reminiscent of the same gift he gave to the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas last month. “This is a medallion made by an artist of the last century,” the pope said, according to pool reporters who were present. “It is the angel of peace that wins all the wars and solidarity between peoples.”
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Francis asked Putin to put forward “a great effort to achieve peace” in Ukraine, implying that the two did indeed discuss the matter. “They agreed on the importance of rebuilding a climate of dialogue and that all parties commit themselves to implement the agreements of Minsk,” Lombardi said after the audience. Putin then raced through Rome with a 13-car motorcade for a quick stop at the Quirnale Hill to visit Italy’s newly elected President, Sergi Mattarella.
Apparently, though, there was no need for Putin to confess to the pontiff. In his exclusive pre-visit interview with Corriere Della Sera newspaper, Putin said he had a clear conscience. “I will be quite frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind,” he said when asked if he had any regrets. “By the grace of God, I have nothing to regret in my life.”
That, of course, was said before Putin’s final stop of his Italian sojourn—a planned late evening visit with his old pal Silvio Berlusconi. The last time the two tomcats got together was in October 2013 when Putin left Berlusconi in the wee hours of the morning. The two have been friends for years, sharing many an Italian holiday at Berlusconi’s Sardinian villa and, of course, giving each other extravagant gifts, including a white-curtained bed that Berlusconi referred to as “Putin’s bed,” on which he once told a call girl to await him after her shower.