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Obama in Rome for Audience With Pope and Talks on Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama is in Italy for an audience with Pope Francis and talks with Italian leaders expected to focus on Ukraine and Russia.

The White House says Mr. Obama has long looked forward to meeting the pope and admires his leadership.

As it has been throughout this week's trip to Europe, Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea will likely be, as the White House put it, "front and center" during the president's stop in Rome.

Mr. Obama met with NATO and European Union officials in Brussels Wednesday and said the West has no plans to use force against Russia in Crimea.

But the president said just because Russia has a deep history with Ukraine, it does not mean it should dictate Ukraine's future and run roughshod over its neighbors.

Mr. Obama also said Russia's energy sector could be the next target of U.S. and European sanctions. He said what happened in Crimea highlights Europe's need to find other energy sources besides Russian natural gas.

A World Bank bank report Wednesday said if Moscow's standoff with the West over Crimea intensifies, the Russian economy could shrink nearly 2 percent in 2014. The report predicts investors could pull $150 billion out of the country.

Despite the global turmoil caused by Russia's annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin has seen his popularity soar in Russia. A new poll by the Levada Center -- an independent Russian polling agency -- found that public support for Mr. Putin had climbed to 80 percent during the past week.

But former Russian deputy prime minister turned opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, tells VOA's Russian service that Mr. Putin's popularity could drop as Russians start to feel the costs of seizing Crimea.

"When citizens realize they have to pay for this adventure out of their own pockets, they will start to sober up," Nemtsov said.