Russia and Italy jointly spoke out against EU sanctions on Moscow in Rome on Thursday (4 July), as Italy's populist rulers seek allies on the world stage to counter French and German power in Europe.
"We have confirmed the excellent state of our bilateral relations", Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte told press after meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Italian capital.
He noted that Italy was not included in the so-called "Normandy format" - the French and German-led talks with Russia on the Ukraine conflict.
But he said Rome was in any case working "to create conditions for overcoming this state of relations between the EU and Russia, which is not good for Russia, nor for the EU nor for Italy, which could otherwise improve our economic and trade relations".
Every time the EU extended sanctions on Russia, which it just did for another six months, it made him "sad", Conte added, because this was "not the goal that I would wish for myself, Italy, and Russian our friends".
"We understand that Italy is bound by its European commitments, so we have no special claims on our Italian friends. But we hope that Italy will express this position consistently, clearly and will fight for ... a full-fledged return to normal relations between Russia and Europe as a whole," Putin said.
"We hope that Europe's interest in restoring full-fledged relations with Russia will [also] be important for the future leadership of the European Union," he added, referring to the recent nomination of Germany's defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to lead the next European Commission and the former French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, to head the European Central Bank.
Putin, who has held power for almost 20 years and who believes liberalism is "obsolete", was in Rome for the first time since the Russia-friendly Italian government, composed of the populist 5 Star Movement (5MS) and far-right League parties, took office in 2018.
For his part, Giancarlo Giorgetti, the deputy secretary of the League and the undersecretary of Conte's cabinet, described the Russian leader's visit as a "strategic opportunity in a situation where Italy, with the rising Franco-German axis, is cut off from Europe".
Italy should also have a "privileged relationship" with the United States, he added, referring to League party chairman and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini's trip to Washington last month.
"Italy is the first, most credible, most solid interlocutor of the US within the European Union", Salvini said at the time.
Salvini, as well as the 5MS party chief and deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, met Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a state dinner in the Italian capital on Thursday.
Salvini is a self-avowed Putin fan who has also attacked the EU sanctions on Russia in the past, while Di Maio has said that Russia's counter-sanctions on EU food reports were "causing huge damage" to Italian companies.
Italian exports to Russia used to be worth almost €10bn a year before the sanctions were imposed in 2014 over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but they are worth less than €8bn a year these days, the Italian economy ministry said.
The Italian agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit, with Coldiretti, the main Italian farming lobby adding, on its website, that the country's food companies had suffered losses of more than €1bn in the past five years.
The Italian government has stopped short of using its EU foreign policy veto on the sanctions in Brussels and Conte noted on Thursday that Russia had "a big role" to play in ending the Ukraine war.
But Putin also said on Wednesday in an interview to with Italy's most widely-read newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, that: "The League and its leader Salvini are active supporters of a restoration of full cooperation between Italy and Russia ... here our points of view coincide".
In the same interview, Putin denied any interference in the internal affairs of EU member states.
"This is what sets us apart from the US and a number of their allies who, for example, supported the coup in Ukraine in February 2014", he claimed.
The Italian daily did not ask him about Russian anti-EU media blitz in May's European Parliament election.
It also did not ask him about revelations, made earlier this year in the book "Il Libro Nero della Lega", that Russia had offered to help fund the League via secret kick-backs on discounted oil trades.
The offer was made at a meeting between a Kremlin-linked Russian businessman, Ylia Yakunin, and Salvini's former spokesperson, Gianluca Savoini, at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow on 18 October 2018.
Savoini, who is still a League member and a chairman of a pro-Russian association called Lombardia-Russia, has confirmed that the meeting took place, but said he was there on behalf of his association rather than his party.
On 26 June, Savoini also told the Italian news agency Agenzia Nova that Putin's visit was going to be "very important", as it showed that "the demonisation" of Russia "has had its day".
When asked about his relationship with Salvini, Putin said he met him for the first time in Milan in 2014.
"Since then, as far as I know, Mr. Salvini and representatives of his party have maintained contact with their Russian counterparts interested in developing cooperation with their Italian partners", Putin told Il Corriere della Sera.
Savoini's comment on ending Russia's "demonisation" referred also to Putin's meeting with Pope Francis.
Before meeting with Conte, Salvini, and Di Maio, the Russian president headed to the Vatican for his third meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff.
Pope kept waiting
Their latest talks came amid new tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian one.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church recently declared its independence from Moscow in reaction to its aggression in Crimea and east Ukraine.
A Vatican statement said the talks concentrated on the situations in Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
"Thanks for the time you have dedicated to me and for the very substantive and interesting talks", Putin said after 55-minute long talks with Pope Francis.
"Pray for me", the pope told Putin in reply.
Putin arrived about an hour late for his Vatican talks - an unusual delay for political leaders who go to the Vatican, but nothing new for the Russian president, who likes to keep world leaders waiting.
Read the original text at EUObserver.