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Ukraine Crisis Shadows EU-Asia Summit in Milan

Amid ongoing tensions over the crisis in Ukraine, European leaders are holding their first formal meeting since June with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a two-day EU-Asian summit in Milan. Putin is also expected to hold talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko.

In opening remarks at the bi-annual meeting between European and Asian leaders, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy outlined threats facing both regions.

"After the financial crisis, Europe is still fighting to regain economic growth and create jobs. The situation in Ukraine is affecting the security of our continent. War and instability in northern Africa and the Middle East have led to the spread of terrorism and organized crime from the Sahel down to Nigeria,” said Van Rompuy.

The summit provides the first opportunity in months for European and Russian leaders to meet amid the ongoing standoff over the Ukraine crisis. The EU and the United States have imposed a series of sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting the insurgency in Ukraine. Moscow denies aiding the rebels and has retaliated with sanctions of its own.

Upon her arrival in Milan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia must ensure the cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine is implemented.

"It is obviously above all Russia's task to make clear that the Minsk plan is adhered to,” said Merkel referring to an agreement reached between Kyiv, Moscow and pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine last month in Belarus’ capital. “Unfortunately, there are still a lot of shortcomings but it will be important to look for a dialogue here,” added the German chancellor.

Speaking earlier Thursday before Germany's parliament, Merkel said Moscow must pull back its troops from Ukraine's border and Ukraine must be allowed to carry out elections throughout its territory.

Ukrainians head to the polls October 26 to elect a new parliament.

Merkel was scheduled to meet with Putin in Milan late Thursday. The Russian president is expected to hold more talks Friday with several top European leaders and Ukraine's Poroshenko. At issue: ways to establish a permanent cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and to settle a gas dispute between Moscow and Kyiv that may cause energy shortages in Ukraine this winter and possible supply cuts to Europe.

Putin has warned Europe that it faces "major transit risks" to natural gas supplies coming from Russia, unless Ukraine soon settles a pricing dispute with Moscow.

Putin spoke ahead of talks Friday with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and key European leaders on the sidelines of an Asia-Russia summit in Milan.

The gathering in Milan is the 10th such meeting. Attended by leaders of more than 50 countries, it will also focus on global economic issues.