Pope, Putin and Ukraine in crisis

The visit by Pope Francis to the Russian Embassy in Rome on Friday, during which he spoke to the ambassador for around an hour-and-a-half, is noteworthy for a number of reasons

February 27, 2022 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Russian president Vladimir Putin after an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, on June 10, 2015.

Papacy is back in global politics — that is, assuming it ever left. The gesture by Pope Francis to visit the Russian Embassy in Rome on Friday undoubtedly makes a notable event, for a variety of reasons.

Pope Francis has an enduring reputation as a ‘pinkish pope’ credited with progressive views — he once refused to grant an audience to the former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo — and his trip came within hours of reports that the first Russian tank column had appeared on the outskirts of Kiev.

The Vatican has a centuries-old ‘foreign service’ of diplomats and spies, ‘think tanks’ and journalists. Nothing that a pope does is ever coincidental. There is also the ponderous Vatican bureaucracy, which takes the decisions for the pope. But, interestingly, Francis’ visit to the Russian embassy on Friday was not listed in his customary daily program sheet of engagements.

That alone makes it an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent. The CNN reported that the pope was speaking with the Russian ambassador for more than an hour and a half.

Francis has called for the peaceful end of the conflict in Ukraine and is urging Catholics to set Wednesday aside as a day of fasting and prayer dedicated to peace in Ukraine.

By way of background, after the CIA-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014 and the commencement of the anti-Russian trajectory of the new regime in Kiev, a schism was engineered in the Orthodox Christianity, as Ukraine separated itself by establishing its own Orthodox church called Ukrainian Orthodox Church in December 2018 — distinct and autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine’s then president Petro Poroshenko had famously said, while addressing the believers who celebrated Mass under the golden domes of St Michael’s Cathedral in Kiev to mark the formal split, that his country would ‘no longer drink Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s chalice’.

By late 2018 and early 2019, when Orthodox Christians in Ukraine declared independence, or autocephaly, from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Russia, Russians, in general, waffled between two emotions — shock and devastation.

At any rate, the Orthodox Church in Constantinople promptly set about recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while Russian Orthodox leaders refused. The result: two opposing Orthodox factions in the country today.

It is into the vortex of this schism in the Orthodox Church that Francis has entered. No doubt, he would have been intensely conscious of it. Actually, there is a hypothesis that the political rifts between Russia and Ukraine even extend to the religious realm — or vice versa, depending on how one views it — considering that President Putin himself is a devout Orthodox Christian and is personally close to Moscow Patriarch Kirill.

Catholics in Ukraine are estimated at about 4-5 million people, about 9% of the population. The main characteristic feature of Ukrainian Catholicism is the predominance of the Greek Catholics over the Catholics of the Latin rite. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite Catholic church that recognizes the pope as its head but follows Byzantine liturgy.

Francis is known to practice ecumenism through relationships, personal encounters, and ecumenical gestures. In fact, since the Great Schism of 1054 when the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches as a community parted ways, it was Francis who had the first meeting ever with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches) when he met Patriarch Kirill in February 2016 at a pre-arranged meeting in a VIP room at the international airport near Havana, Cuba. (Cuban dignitaries attending the occasion included President Raul Castro.) After a two-hour private meeting, they signed a joint declaration on a range of topics that focused on the unity of the Christian Church and their unique role as ‘brothers in the Christian faith.’

Analysts opine that Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill had a geopolitical dimension, given President Putin’s assertion of Russia’s influence on the world stage and his ‘political alliance’ with Patriarch Kirill. This needs some explaining.

It is well-known that Patriarch Kirill’s policies have brought the Russian Orthodox Church closer to the Russian state through the past two decades. In the 2012, Russian presidential election, he openly supported Putin, likening Putin’s presidency to ‘a miracle from God.’

Now, it is no secret that Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an instrument of Russian international policy and has been an effective transmitter worldwide of the Kremlin’s political interests.

In fact, Francis even drew some flak for allowing himself to be used by a Russia eager to assert itself. But then, Francis had his answer ready. When he was asked about the possibility of being the first pope to visit Russia and China, Francis once pointed to his heart and said: ‘China and Russia, I have them here. Pray.’

Putin has met Francis three times. A trio of audiences with the pope for a world statesman is exceedingly rare, if ever. They are known to have discussed politics.

That said, no Catholic Church leader has yet entered the domain of Russian Orthodoxy. And it remains a coveted destination for a papal trip. Francis enjoys a great reputation in Russia, and some suspect Kirill might even be jealous of the Argentine pope’s popularity.

Putin’s second meeting with Francis at the Vatican lasting 50 minutes (quite lengthy as far as papal audiences go) took place in June 2015 within months of Crimea’s return to Russia. The Vatican said at that time that Francis demanded ‘sincere and comprehensive efforts for peace’ in Ukraine and the pair had agreed that a ‘climate of dialogue’ had to be restored and that ‘all parties’ had to adhere to the Minsk agreements.

It stands to reason that at the meeting on Friday, Francis conveyed to the Kremlin, some message in regard of the developments in Ukraine. The long duration of the meeting in the Russian embassy flags that it was substantive. Indeed, it took place even as the first Russian tank column was sighted on the outskirts of Kiev.

Given Francis’ flair for geopolitics, his empathy with Russian foreign policy and his critique of the West in many ways, the in-person visit to the Russian Embassy — Francis could always have summoned the ambassador, which is the usual practice —makes it an extraordinary hands-on gesture.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat