MILAN (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
Putin talked with Premier Matteo Renzi in Milan before heading to the Vatican, fresh from his latest snub by the Group of Seven developed nations, which reaffirmed sanctions against Moscow at a summit this week.
While the pope has deplored the loss of life in Ukraine and called for all sides to respect the cease-fire, he has not publicly placed any blame on Russia in an apparent bid to not upset Vatican relations with the Orthodox Church.
The United States, NATO and European leaders have blamed Moscow for supplying rebels with manpower, training and weapons. Russia denies the claims.
On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, said the United States "would like to see the Vatican increase its" concern about what is happening in Ukraine during the pope's meeting with Putin.
"We think they could say something more about concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues," Hackett told reporters. "It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine. This is a very serious situation."
Putin's visit, which includes seeing Russia's pavilion at the 2015 Expo World's Fair in Milan, is significant after the G-7 made it clear sanctions against Russia won't be lifted until Moscow fully implements the Ukraine peace accord.
The leaders of the world's industrialized democracies, who for the second year in a row disinvited Putin to their summit, also said sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union could be increased if needed.
A cease-fire agreement for Ukraine has been shaky. The heaviest fighting in months broke out in recent days between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.
After meeting with the pope, Putin will spend time later Wednesday with his old friend, ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi.