ROME — The warm welcome that Russian President Vladimir Putin received on his recent visit to Italy did not come out of the blue. It is a direct result of a shift in Italy's foreign policy that began to take shape two months ago when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

It was April 17th, and the two world leaders were in the Oval Office discussing Italy's position on the Western sanctions on Russia linked to the crisis in Ukraine.

The Italian Shift

Renzi spoke with the requisite diplomatic nuance but made his position clear: Italy would not break with the Western line on sanctions against Russia, but at the same time intended to pursue a deeper relationship with Moscow. In other words, Italy subtly but clearly asserted an independent foreign policy regarding its relations with Putin.

The Obama administration understood and accepted, it seemed, that Rome would follow its own path without suffering any consequences from Washington for its new policy. During the same visit, Obama also agreed to recognize Italy's leadership in dealing with the Libyan civil war, as long as Rome takes the lead in providing concrete steps to resolve the crisis.

Matteo Renzi and Barack Obama meet in Rome in 2014 — Photo: White House

The foundations for Italy's thaw with Russia were first laid out during Renzi's March 5 talks with Putin in Moscow, more than a month before the White House meeting.

The "Moscow Agreement"

Indeed that Moscow trip by Renzi — the first official visit by a Western leader to Russia since the annexation of Crimea — signaled that Italy's foreign policy was going to stray from its European allies (French President Francois Hollande held a brief talk with Putin at the Moscow airport in December 2013).

Much to the Russian President's delight, Renzi's visit signified not only a rupture of Putin's isolation but also an opportunity to push for closer relations between the two countries. The length of the meeting — three hours in the Kremlin — highlights the importance of the event and how strongly the two leaders sought to build their personal relationship.

Speaking at the close of the summit, Renzi said: "In both directions, sanctions and counter-sanctions are a problem." By referring to the sanctions as a problem rather than as a solution to Russia's aggression as presented by his U.S. ally, Renzi marked an abrupt shift in Italian diplomacy.

Economic Priorities

Italy is Russia's second largest trading partner in the EU after Germany and is strongly dependent on Russian gas, which provides 40% of the country's energy. Due to the effect of sanctions, bilateral trade between the two nations sunk 17% in 2014, particularly hurting exports of food, agriculture, fashion, and technology.

The Italian prime minister's ambition to carve out an influential role for Italy in European diplomacy converges with the need to stimulate a still lethargic economy, prompting his overtures to renew ties with Putin. Renzi's great hope is that Italy can be the catalyst for a wider rapprochement between Moscow and the West.