Relations between Rome and Moscow are generally good. Italy gets roughly 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia, while Russia is Italy's eighth largest exports destination. Italian banks are important players in Russia, and energy companies from both countries operate together in projects around the world. In addition, Rome and Moscow have strategic interests that are rarely in conflict. Unlike Germany, Italy is not particularly interested in the areas that Russia sees as its spheres of influence, and unlike countries such as Poland and Romania, Rome does not feel threatened by Moscow's political, economic and military influence in the former Communist bloc.
However, the crisis in Ukraine put Italy in an awkward situation: Rome was pressured to follow the official EU policy regarding Russia, yet it wanted to preserve its ties with Moscow. Rome voted for sanctions on Russia but continually urged caution and moderation in the introduction of punitive measures. Italy's successive political crises gave it an excuse to focus on domestic issues and keep a relatively low profile regarding the events in Ukraine. The Italian government mitigated the frictions with the Kremlin, as Rome let Berlin and Paris take the lead in the diplomatic push against Moscow.
Three factors probably prompted Renzi's visit with Putin. The first is the situation in Ukraine. During 2014, the combination of European sanctions and a weaker ruble hurt Italy's exports to Russia. The Italian economy is fragile, and Rome is interested in a de-escalation of the Ukraine conflict so the European Union can begin lifting its sanctions on Moscow and Russia can withdraw its counter-sanctions on Europe that affect agricultural exports (one of Italy's key exports). Europe's sanctions on Russia begin to expire in late March, and it takes unanimous support from EU member states to renew them. Italy needs Russia to ease the conflict so Rome can lobby Brussels to let the sanctions expire.
Second, Italy is concerned by events in Libya. Over the past three years, the crisis in the country has led to massive waves of asylum seekers reaching Italian shores, constricting Italy's budget and creating political tensions within the country and between Italy and its neighbors.
Libya was an Italian colony, and Rome still considers it to be within its sphere of influence. The African country is roughly 100 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key arrival point for asylum seekers. Previous Italian governments had deals with former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to prevent people from immigrating to Italy, but these deals ended when Gadhafi died. Since then, Italy has spent million of euros on maritime operations to rescue asylum seekers. Rome is also concerned about terrorists potentially entering Europe as asylum seekers. Threats by the Islamic State to target Italy and the Vatican strengthened these concerns.
Italy is also worried about the instability in Libya hurting its energy imports, as Italy gets roughly 20 percent of its oil and 10 percent of its natural gas from the North African country. In addition, Italian energy giant ENI is a significant investor in Libya, and the crisis in the country has caused numerous problems for the Italian company. Italy is interested in a comprehensive cease-fire and the formation of a government of national unity in Libya. Rome supports the United Nations' negotiations with Libya's competing factions, but is also frustrated by the lack of progress. As a result, Italy would like Russia to provide diplomatic support for those negotiations.
Finally, Rome is interested in fighting extremists, including but not limited to the Islamic State, in Libya. Here Egypt becomes key. In mid-February, Egypt carried out a series of airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Libya in retaliation for the killing of 21 Egyptian Christians. Cairo has also requested the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo on Libya, help build the country's army to fight the Islamic State and other militant groups, and impose a naval blockade on areas not under government control. In 2014, Russia and Egypt signed a $3.5 billion arms deal, and Putin visited the country in February. Also in February, Renzi wrote to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressing Italy's support for Egypt's fight against the Islamic State and proposing a "Cairo-Rome axis" to fight extremism in North Africa. But to do this, Rome needs Moscow to use its voice in the U.N. Security Council and to continue arming the Egyptian military.
Relaunching Bilateral Relations
The third reason for Renzi's visit to Moscow is his desire to build a personal relationship with Putin. During the 2000s, Putin developed close ties with former Italian Prime Ministers Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi. Russia views Italy as one of the heavyweights of Europe — not as influential as France or Germany, but still important — and Putin has used personal ties to maintain a relationship with Rome.
But since 2011, Italy's political and economic crises led to a rapid succession of prime ministers, none of whom had the time to focus on Italy's bilateral relations with Russia. Renzi believes that once the Ukrainian crisis has calmed down, Italy will need to normalize relations with Russia so both countries can continue to cooperate in their common areas of interest.
This third goal is probably the easiest to achieve. Russia wants to keep good ties with certain EU members, including Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Italy, even if the Kremlin knows this strategy has only produced modest results. But Renzi is unlikely to make significant progress in his other goals. Russia has made some gestures toward de-escalation in Ukraine, but the conflict is far from over and the largest political powers in the European Union could push smaller countries to renew sanctions in the likely event that the terms of the latest Minsk agreement are not fully met. As for Libya, Russia is not particularly interested in the stabilization of a country that sells oil and natural gas to Europe and will probably opt to continue providing military assistance to Egypt.
Italy will keep pushing the European Union for moderation and engagement rather than confrontation when it comes to Russia, but the future of the Russia-EU conflict is beyond Rome's control. Russia will continue to have interests in North Africa, but the stabilization of the area, let alone the reduction of migration flows to Southern Europe, is not a priority for Moscow. Renzi and Putin have a long list of common interests in energy and trade, but their ability to help each other is limited.