A defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Asian and European leaders in Italy on Thursday for talks intended to focus on trade but, like many diplomatic gatherings of the past six months, was being dominated by the deadly crisis in Ukraine.
Putin was put on notice before the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan that he would be pressed to genuinely conform to a Sept. 5 cease-fire that calls for an end to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the agreement signed six weeks ago by Russia, Ukraine and pro-Russia separatist gunmen who have seized key industrial areas along the Russian border, artillery exchanges have continued and hundreds of fighters and civilians have been killed, boosting the death toll in half a year of undeclared war to nearly 4,000.
The 53 nations of the Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, represent 60% of the world’s population and more than half of its economic activity. While the annual gathering has seldom produced major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, it is seen this year as an opportunity to bring pressure to bear on Putin to use his influence with the separatists to end the Ukraine bloodshed.
But Putin set out for the summit with a brash warning to Western leaders that sanctions and accusations won’t lead to peace.
President Obama’s depiction of Putin during a U.N. speech last month as one of three “major threats to humanity” along with the Ebola epidemic and Islamic State extremists spurred an ominous retort from the Kremlin leader on the eve the Milan gathering.
“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,” Putin told Serbia’s Politika newspaper. It was the second time in as many months that Putin reminded Washington and Ukraine’s Western European allies of Russia’s nuclear capabilities.
He called Obama’s posture toward Russia “nothing but hostile,” and warned that moves to isolate Russia over its purported role in the Ukraine violence was “an absurd and illusory goal.”