MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin will be on the lookout for signs of dissent over European Union sanctions on Russia when he visits Italy on Wednesday, but he is likely to be disappointed.
The Russian leader is due to meet Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan, two weeks before the EU decides whether to extend the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
Although Putin can expect a friendly reception, Italy is unlikely to break ranks, especially after G7 leaders warned at a summit attended by Renzi that they might step up the sanctions if violence in Ukraine increases.
But Russia enjoys better relations with Italy than with most of its EU partners. It regards Rome as a reluctant backer of sanctions and a leading proponent of dialogue with Moscow.
Reacting to G7 criticism on Monday, the Kremlin said there were nuances of opinion in the group of industrialized nations, an apparent reference to Italy, and Moscow has sought to exploit divisions over the sanctions.
"My Italian partners have always put the interests of Italy, of the Italian people, first and believed that in order to serve the interests of their country, including economic and political interests, they must maintain friendly relations with Russia," Putin told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Putin - who will also hope for a sympathetic reception in Vatican City from Pope Francis, who has played a behind-the-scenes role in discussions on a Palestinian state and in U.S.-Cuba relations - referred to a "special relationship" with Rome.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, however, signaled no change in Italy's stance on Ukraine in a separate interview with Corriera della Sera.
Underlining what he said was Italy's consistency in relations with its European and U.S. allies, Gentiloni said: "Italy has been combining loyalty to its allies with a special relationship with Russia."
He added that he did not subscribe to Putin's version of events in Ukraine.
Putin blames the crisis on Kiev and the West, which he says plotted a coup in Ukraine. He denies sending arms and troops to back pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, where more than 6,400 people have been killed in just over a year of fighting.
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose country has also punished Russia with sanctions, puts the blame directly on Putin. He accused him on Monday of wrecking Russia's economy by trying to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire.
Putin is making a rare foray onto EU soil since the Ukraine crisis stoked the worst tension between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended, though it is his second trip to Italy in eight months following a Europe-Asia summit in October.
Putin cemented ties with Hungary during a visit to Budapest in February, but the former Soviet bloc ally is not expected to block the extension of sanctions at an EU summit on June 25-26.
A visit in June 2014 to Austria, a longstanding energy customer for Moscow, was also not followed by splits in the EU.
Putin will be accompanied by business leaders including Vladimir Dmitriev, head of Russian state development bank VEB, and Igor Sechin, chief executive of state oil company Rosneft. The Kremlin announced no plans for major deals to be signed.
Additional reporting by James MacKenzie in Rome; Editing by Larry King; Writing by Timothy Heritage