VATICAN CITY — On Wednesday, for the second time in his pontificate, Pope Francis will receive Russian President Vladimir Putin in private audience, during which the Russian president is expected to explain Moscow’s position on the crisis in Ukraine.

Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said the Russian leader hopes a “whole range of bilateral ties” will be discussed, as well as “topical international issues,” but, in particular, “the situation in Ukraine, with the focus on interreligious relations and the activity of Ukraine’s Catholics.”

He also said the two leaders are expected to discuss persecuted Christians in the Middle East “and the need to protect their interests,” the Russian news agency TASS reported June 9.

The Pope and Putin last met in November 2013 at the Vatican, during which persecuted Christians also figured high on the agenda; but tensions between the Orthodox Church and the Vatican were avoided, and Ukraine had not at that time become such a focus of tension.

Today's meeting, reportedly requested by Putin and prepared in secret, was not initially on the Russian president’s itinerary to Italy. But when the Kremlin’s request was received, the Holy See reportedly inserted it into the Pope’s busy agenda without hesitation, according to Vatican Insider.

The Vatican’s readiness to meet the Russian leader is being seen as a sign of the Holy Father’s proactive diplomacy, one that, in the words of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, aims to “to build bridges in order to promote dialogue and use negotiation as a means to solve conflicts, spread fraternity, fight against poverty and build peace.”

But it also shows the Pope’s determination that Russia not be left out in the cold following its annexation of Crimea last year and military incursions into Ukraine — a common response among many Western nations. He is also no doubt aware that, in the nearly two years since their last meeting, tensions between Russia and the West have markedly increased, and he will probably use this meeting to help ease them.

Putin is expected to convey to the Pope that, contrary to widespread Western public opinion, he is “not an aggressor” — a frequent refrain in a long interview the Russian leader gave to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday.

He will also be eager to gain the Pope’s favor: His willingness to take the initiative and visit Francis shows he places a high premium on the Pope’s influence on foreign affairs, something he witnessed in 2013, when the Holy Father sent a letter to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Many saw this gesture — along with a prayer vigil at the Vatican — as helping to avert military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is a strong ally of Russia.

For its part, the Vatican sees Russia as an important bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, especially in the Middle East. The Pope also sees a common front with the Russian Orthodox Church and what he calls an “ecumenism of blood.” Partly for this reason, the Holy See is unwilling to take sides against Russia on the Ukrainian crisis.

 

Ukrainian Frustration

But for many Ukrainian Catholics, the sight of Putin meeting the Pope verges on the intolerable. To them, Putin has unmistakably invaded their land (not “fratricide,” as the Pope once called it), and Ukrainian Catholics have faced a barrage of abuse from politically motivated Russian Orthodox Church leaders who see Ukrainian Catholics as too involved in Western policy against Russia.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Kiev, has therefore tried, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade the Holy See to speak out against Putin.

Ukrainian Catholics are particularly frustrated that, according to Archbishop Antonio Mennini, who served eight years as apostolic nuncio to Russia, Francis has never defined Putin as an aggressor. Archbishop Mennini contended at a conference in London last month that this view is similarly held by the majority in the Vatican.

This is why Francis’ international strategy is also viewed across the Atlantic “with a mixture of curiosity, admiration and perplexity,” wrote Holy See foreign-policy expert Massimo Franco in Corriere della Sera.

But Franco, who spoke at the same conference as Archbishop Mennini, explained that the Pope has always maintained a “cautious and autonomous strategy” with Russia, with the “full agreement” of Cardinal Parolin.

The Vatican’s primary concern, Franco stressed, is the unwanted development of a new Cold War between Russia and the United States, as well as one between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which could become a “religious Cold War.” Like St. John Paul II, Franco wrote, Francis wants Europe to breathe with “two lungs, one East and one West.”

 

Papal Visit?

Franco suggested “a winning move” for the Vatican would be if Putin would convince Patriarch Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox “foreign minister,” to invite Pope Francis to Moscow — a perennial possibility that the Vatican has long pursued.

“It would stop the drift towards conflict and promote religious reconciliation,” Franco wrote, adding that an opportunity to discuss this may arise when Archbishop Hilarion comes to Rome to meet Cardinal Parolin on June 20, at which time he may also meet Francis.

However, the Kremlin’s Ushakov said June 9 that Putin and the Pope are not likely to discuss a papal visit to Russia, adding that it is a matter of not only state relations, “but also of church.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.