Putin takes centre stage at Asia-Europe summit
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.
- China, Russia's 'natural ally' -
Malaysia was traumatised by the loss of a second MAS plane in months and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot has been threatening to confront Putin at an upcoming G20 meeting.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev laughed off that threat Wednesday, saying judo black-belt Putin was unlikely to be scared of Abbot, a keen amateur boxer in his youth.
Japan meanwhile has hit Moscow with sanctions while most other Asian partner states have stressed the need for a peaceful solution in Ukraine.
In marked contrast, China is Russia's "natural ally," Putin said Tuesday as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a host of economic deals worth billions.
"We are natural partners, natural allies, we are neighbours," Putin said while Li praised the "inexhaustible" potential for cooperation between the two sides who earlier this year signed a mammoth $400 billion gas supply deal.
If the Ukraine crisis runs like a thread through the summit, there are other intractable territorial disputes in Asia also lying in wait.
Beijing has repeatedly clashed with Tokyo over ownership of a series of islands while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried without success to arrange a summit with Chinese leaders since he came to power in December 2012.
China in turn may run into flak over its claims to almost all of the South China Sea, a vital shipping route which is also believed to hold significant oil reserves.
Association of Southeast Asian Nation members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, all contest Beijing's claim which has sparked some serious naval clashes over the years.
ASEAN, which also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, has repeatedly tried but largely failed to get China to reconsider its position.
On Monday, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso once again urged all parties to resolve the dispute peacefully, adding that he had proposed an informal meeting of EU-ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of the ASEM summit.
Among other participants likely to be in the spotlight is Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, making his first visit to the West since seizing power in a May military coup which the EU condemned sharply.
The two-day ASEM summit is the 10th since the forum was established in 1996.
© 2014 AFP