MOSCOW — Trying to maneuver out of the worst Russia-West crisis since the Cold War, President Vladimir Putin is unleashing a diplomatic blitz involving a series of meetings with Western leaders during his visit to Italy.
Putin's two-day trip to a Europe-Asia summit in Milan, which begins Thursday, offers him the first chance to discuss the Ukrainian crisis with EU leaders since his visit to France in June to attend the D-Day anniversary.
The U.S. and the European Union have imposed a series of economic sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and support for a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine. High-level contacts have been sharply curtailed, and Putin hasn't traveled to Europe since a brief visit to Vienna in late June.
In an interview with the Serbian daily Politika released by the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin angrily dismissed Western sanctions as an "absurd and illusory" attempt to isolate Russia.
"It is obviously impossible to achieve it, but the economic health of Europe and the world can be seriously undermined," said Putin, who will make a stopover in Serbia on Thursday en route to Milan.
Putin harshly criticized President Barack Obama for mentioning Russia as a major threat to humanity alongside the Ebola virus and the Islamic State group. "We hope that our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability," he said.
Presidential foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said that Putin will meet Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and attend a dinner involving other leaders. They last met face-to-face at the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro in July.
Merkel said she expects to discuss the fulfillment of a cease-fire deal signed last month in Minsk, which has helped reduce hostilities but failed to completely halt fighting.
"I expect an open exchange of views and progress in implementing the Minsk agreement. ... We will talk about how we can transform the Minsk agreement into reality," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
Late last month, Merkel said the EU still wasn't considering removing the sanctions because of ongoing fighting.
On Friday, Putin will have breakfast with the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Ukraine and the European Union that will focus on Ukraine. A separate meeting involving Putin and the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine is also being considered.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he's pinning big hopes on the meetings in Milan. He spoke with Putin over the phone Tuesday to discuss preparations for the talks.
The Kremlin said the two leaders agreed to discuss the gas dispute among other issues. Much of the Russian gas supplied to the EU passes via pipelines crossing Ukraine, and the pricing dispute has raised fears of a supply crisis in Ukraine and the EU.
European Union energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger plans to bring together the Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers for talks in Berlin next Tuesday aimed at securing a temporary deal to ensure supplies through the winter.
In an apparent show of goodwill before the trip to Milan, Putin over the weekend ordered 17,600 Russian troops to pull back from areas near the border with Ukraine and return to their home bases.
Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of fueling the insurgency with weapons and fighters, allegations Moscow has rejected.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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