One of the marvels of the current parade of curious and dubious figures on the world stage is that American President Donald Trump is accused of being too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, when in fact Putin’s greatest international friend is actually Pope Francis. Last week, I wrote here about what Putin wanted from his meeting with the Holy Father last week. But what does the Holy Father get out of the special relationship?
There is no doubt that Putin has a special place in the Holy Father’s heart. Even in the face of repeated insulting behaviour – Putin has shown up at the Vatican an hour late for each of his three meetings with Pope Francis – the Holy Father is accommodating, at the ready whenever Putin arrives. Their conversations are lengthy and apparently enjoyed by both parties. It’s hard to think of any other government leader that Pope Francis is so favourably disposed to, with the possible exception of Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
After the meeting on July 4, the papal spokesman said that while such meetings are customarily characterised as “cordial”, he had spoken to Pope Francis and confirmed that they were indeed genuinely just that. The two men present themselves as enjoying friendly relations.
It’s clear what Putin wants. An aggressor in Syria and Ukraine, and a supporter of the murderous regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, he wants to exploit his warm relations with Pope Francis for moral cover. He got that on this visit, with the Holy Father overlooking Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war. Instead, “Russia’s efforts to preserve and protect the [Christian] holy places were praised.”
The next day, when the Holy Father greeted the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, it was clear that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine was not on the table. Pope Francis spoke of a Ukraine “wounded” by more than five years of “war in which those responsible are camouflaged”.
It is not such a great mystery who the wounding is being done by. The Ukrainian bishops to whom the Holy Father was speaking have made it abundantly clear that Russia is the aggressor. Putin, though, got what he wanted: the Holy Father sees ambiguous camouflage where Ukrainian Catholics see Russian colours, bright and bloody. Yet despite what Ukrainian Catholics think, Pope Francis has made it clear that Rome will not be making any fuss over Russian military action.
So it is clear what Putin wants, and what he gets. But what about Pope Francis?
In general, Pope Francis sees Putin as an ally against the moral decay that the Holy Father decries in the West. Putin vigorously presents himself as a defender of traditional moral values and an ostentatious promoter of Russia’s millennia-old Orthodox heritage. For a Pope suspicious of globalising technological forces and market economies, Russia’s activist state may hold some appeal.
More specifically though, Pope Francis sees Russia’s on-the-ground forces in the Middle East as protection for the beleaguered Christian minority which, in many places, is majority Orthodox. Recall that Pope Francis’s first major diplomatic initiative was to lead an international moral protest against President Barack Obama enforcing his “red line” against chemical weapons when Syria’s Bashar Assad used them. Pope Francis wrote in September 2013 to Putin, as head of the G20, pleading against American-led military action. In the end, Obama backed down and Putin swept into the vacuum as Assad’s ally and protector.
Or it might be that Pope Francis sees that a certain cosiness with Putin is required in order to build relations with the Orthodox. The Holy Father’s relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, Bartholomew, are more than close; just last week the Holy Father gave him the relics of St Peter heretofore kept in the private papal chapel. But the Patriarchate of Moscow, the practical centre of global Orthodoxy, is the great prize in ecumenical relations. Putin – with whom the Moscow Patriarchate is politically allied – can be a bridge to the Russian Orthodox. And he has delivered. After refusing for decades to meet the pope, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met Pope Francis in 2016. It would not have happened without Putin’s influence, and the political character of the manoeuvring was evident in the meeting itself, which took place in an airport in Castro’s Cuba, rather than an ecclesial setting.
Finally, Putin holds the key to a papal visit to Moscow. The Moscow Patriarchate is opposed to such a visit, which is why it has not happened, even though successive Russian leaders – Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin – were open to it. In 2001, the Greek Orthodox synod in Athens made it clear that it did not want St John Paul II to visit Greece. It was the Greek government that overruled it, and forced it to retract its opposition and welcome the visit.
Could Putin eventually do the same for Francis in Moscow? Perhaps. He has the power, and is not afraid to use it.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca