But a year later, Putin has found in Italy something more modest: a government that speaks warmly about the Kremlin but that hasn’t dramatically broken from policies favored by Washington and other European capitals.
Putin is scheduled to visit Rome on Thursday for a one-day trip that analysts say is designed to cultivate the friendship between the countries at a time when Russia is playing a more ambitious and divisive role around the world.
The Russian president will spend time with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as well as with Pope Francis, with whom he has met twice before.
Conte — the leader selected by the government’s coalition members — has advocated for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven, which suspended Russia as its eighth member after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Others in government — including Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini — have clamored against sanctions, calling them “madness.”
But Italy has not used its veto power to stop the renewal of European sanctions against Russia, put in place after the Ukraine crisis. Instead, its government has taken smaller steps to maintain healthy ties with Russia. Both Salvini’s far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement have described Russia as a security partner in the Middle East while emphasizing the economic benefits of doing business with Moscow — especially if sanctions are dropped.
Meantime, Italy has tried to balance its relationship with Russia and its allegiance to the United States. Salvini visited Washington last month, and the Trump administration has praised Italy for its hard-line stance on migration.
“It suits Russia to keep a friendly voice in Europe, while knowing that there are limits to what Italy can do,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and the director of the Brussels office of Project Associates, a consulting firm.
Salvini, the dominant figure in Italy’s government, has worked to raise doubts about Russia’s perceived dangers, and in an October speech in Moscow, he made apparent reference to the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal, an operation that British authorities traced to Russian agents.
Salvini said in jest that people who did business with Russia were “the worst criminals on Earth,” helping to fund a country that has spies who “go around Europe poisoning random people.”
“In this narrative, there is something that doesn’t sound convincing to me,” Salvini said.
Italian leaders have been fairly quiet about the threat of Russian misinformation that spreads online. In an article posted a month ago, a social sciences academic and Italian journalist wrote that Russian social media and propaganda campaigns had “sought to encourage” the growth of Salvini’s League, while working to stoke fear about immigration and skepticism about the European Union.
“The Russians are likely just fine creating an element of disturbance from a big country like Italy that somehow increases divisions and confusion inside the E.U.,” said Giancarlo Aragona, a former Italian ambassador to Moscow and a senior adviser at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
But even before this government came to power, Russia for decades had enjoyed amiable relations with Italy — whether the country was led by flamboyant media tycoons, technocrats or mainstream left-wingers.
Putin famously took vacations with Silvio Berlusconi in Sardinia and along the Black Sea. A subsequent Italian premier, Enrico Letta, attended the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi when other major Western leaders stayed away in protest of repressive anti-LGBT laws.
Italy depends heavily on Russian natural gas, and analysts note that Putin’s persona — firm and calculating — has proved attractive to voters on the Italian political left and right.
According to a Pew Research Center poll published in December, 37 percent of Italians view Russia in a favorable light — more than in any European country except Greece or Hungary, among the 10 that were polled. Across the world, and particularly in Europe, views of Russia are largely negative. But 49 percent of Italians said their views of Russia were “unfavorable,” compared with 66 percent across all of Europe.
“Italy is probably the only country in Europe among the key players where, from the extreme right to the extreme left, there is a crosscutting component of Russian orientation,” said Igor Pellicciari, a professor at the University of Urbino in Italy and at MGIMO University in Moscow. “It’s difficult to find even one party in Italy that would tell you they are against Russia.”