Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a lightning visit to Rome on Thursday, including talks with the pope, hailing efforts by Italy’s populist government to ease sanctions despite Moscow’s ongoing crisis with the West.
Rome’s historic centre was on security lockdown for the visit, with 50 streets blocked to traffic.
Putin landed around an hour late at Fiumicino airport and his convoy drove into Rome and the Vatican City where he met the pope for nearly an hour of closed-door talks.
Putin has arrived late for all three of their encounters, the last of which was in 2015 when the pope urged all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to make a “sincere effort” for peace.
Thursday’s meeting came a day before the pope receives leaders of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are mostly Russian Orthdodox, while those they fight are Orthodox and Greek Catholic.
Francis first met Putin in 2013, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Only in 2009 did the Vatican and Moscow re-establish full diplomatic ties which were severed during Soviet times.
Relations have improved since the coming to power in the same year of Patriarch Kirill, who headed up the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic arm for years.
The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently accused the Catholic Church of proselytising in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.
The pope in 2016 held a historic meeting with Kirill in Cuba, the first encounter between the heads of the two largest Christian churches since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th Century — an event known as “The Great Schism.”
Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday that “for the time being a possible invitation for the pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda.”
The pope and Putin were to discuss matters including “preserving Christian holy sites in Syria”, the Kremlin said.
After meeting the pope, Putin had lunch with President Sergio Mattarella before heading into talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Putin was driven around in his six-metre-long (20-foot) armoured limo by a chauffeur who has been practising negotiating his way around the Eternal City’s narrow streets. His talks with Italian leaders should be easier.
Far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often expressed admiration for Putin, and his coalition government advocates reviewing EU sanctions against Russia.
“We appreciate Italy’s apiration to completely re-establish relations between Russia and the European Union,” Putin told a joint conference with Conte.
“We see Italian government efforts in this direction, and we appreciate them,” the Russian leader added.
The US and EU have progressively imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.
When his party won most Italian votes in May’s European elections, Salvini posted a photo of himself with a picture of Putin in the background.
“Men like him (Putin) who act in the interest of their own citizens, there should be dozens in this country”, Salvini said last year.
The Kremlin says Putin wanted to discuss Russia-EU relations, the situation in Syria, Ukraine and Libya and Iran’s nuclear programme.
An EU summit last month extended economic sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its crucial oil and gas industry, until the end of 2019.
Italy has not vetoed the sanctions but the EU front appears less united thanks to Rome’s pro-Russian overtures.
Salvini and fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio will attend a dinner for Putin in the evening, after which the russian president will meet his old friend and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, known for his sex scandals and “bunga bunga” parties.
“We are bound by a friendship stretching back many years,” Putin said in the Corriere interview, hailing “a politician of global stature”.