Putin takes centre stage at Asia-Europe summit

Putin takes centre stage at Asia-Europe summit
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the forum of the Russian pro-government movement "Popular Front" in Penza on October 15, 2014.

MILAN - Vladimir Putin will take centre stage at an Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit that opens Thursday in Milan, where the Russian leader is to hold face-to-face talks with Ukraine counterpart Petro Poroshenko.

The headline theme of the conference is promoting economic cooperation between more than 50 countries who share one of the world's largest trading relationships.

On that front, however, there are mounting problems - Europe's recovery has stalled and China, for so long the driver of global growth, is losing momentum.

Much of the attention will be focused on the margins of the summit, especially Putin's breakfast meeting Friday with Poroshenko to review a battered ceasefire that Kiev agreed in early September with pro-Moscow rebels.

To improve the mood music, as he has done before previous meetings, Putin earlier this week announced a troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border.

The European Union and the United States hailed the news as positive but also reminded the Russian president that sanctions remain in place until Moscow stops meddling in Ukraine completely.

The mood hardened again Wednesday when Putin accused US President Barack Obama of a hostile attitude towards Russia and warned against "attempts to blackmail" Moscow.

Friday's Russia-Ukraine meet will take the form of a mini-summit which will also involve the leaders of Italy, Germany, France and Britain as well as the EU's top officials.

Russia sees it as a chance to discuss the "causes and origins" of the Ukraine conflict and "the prospects for a peace process", said Putin advisor Yuri Yushakov.

Putin will also hold bilateral talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, notably on the issue of ensuring "uninterrupted gas supplies for Europe ahead of the autumn and winter," Yushakov said.

Russia cut off its gas shipments to Ukraine in June and threatened to block the EU from receiving gas supplies if its members deliver gas to Ukraine.

Merkel came around to imposing sanctions on Russia after nearly 300 people died in July in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, allegedly by rebels using a Russian missile.

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