• Russia has `absolutely crucial' role to play on Syria
  • Europe Union `finished' if it closes borders to refugees

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said western leaders trying to end the carnage in Syria must accept the central role of Russia in world affairs as a renewed drive to end the war got off to a difficult start in New York.

The youthful premier, in a sweeping interview that tackled issues ranging from reform of Italy’s Senate to the Middle East and the migration crisis, urged his partners to show they could "build a Europe without walls, but with hope."

As U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held their first formal sit-down in more than a year, Renzi, 40, said Russia had an "absolutely crucial" role to play on key dossiers including Syria.

"Russia is a great country, with a great history and a great future," Renzi said Monday in the 49th-floor office of the Italian diplomatic mission, which towers over the United Nations headquarters in New York. "Imagining a future without Russia is a great mistake."

Reference Point

While stressing the importance of the U.S. as Italy’s "point of reference" in international affairs, he also made it clear that Russia must be brought back in from the diplomatic cold. That ambition seemed some way off on Monday after Putin emerged from a 1.5-hour meeting with Obama to say relations between the two are still “at a pretty low level.”

In the interview, Renzi stopped short of saying it was time to roll back sanctions over Ukraine as a conciliatory gesture toward Putin.

"We must preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty, we must preserve Ukraine’s identity and borders. And for this reason it’s correct to have the sanctions against Putin," he said. All parties must respect the Minsk protocols, he added.

Syria Dominates

Syria is taking center stage at the UN’s annual gathering as refugees from the war-ravaged country stream into western Europe, sowing often-rancorous divisions among European Union members over how best to deal with the influx. At one end of the spectrum, German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted an open-door policy for migrants, while at the other extreme Hungary has fenced off borders against other EU members to keep refugees out.

For Renzi, whose country is bearing the brunt of the worst refugee crisis since World War II, the lack of solidarity is tearing at the fabric of European ideals already damaged by seven years of weak economic growth and the politics of austerity.

“If Europe is closed, Europe is finished,” he said.

The region faces three crucial electoral tests between now and 2017, Renzi said, pointing to national votes in France and Germany and the U.K.’s referendum on EU membership.

Renzi added that the central pillars of EU membership such as a commitment to a common currency and the free movement of people will ultimately hold together.

"For refugees, the question is very simple: if we believe in a Europe focused only on spreads, and austerity and budget, OK," he said. "But that is not Europe.”

For more, read this QuickTake: Cool War