Unwelcome in most European capitals, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to the Vatican on June 10 was likely a Kremlin attempt to show the West that its policy of isolation is not working. Pope Francis is one of the world’s most prominent religious and political leaders, so the meeting provided the Kremlin ample opportunity for spin. Neither side gave much of a readout, but any suggestion that the Pope is a potential Kremlin ally would be deeply misguided. Here’s why:    

Although he has not publicly assigned blame for the war in eastern Ukraine, Pope Francis has been increasingly outspoken against the war there, focusing on the plight of civilians and the growing humanitarian crisis. In February, he called for an end to the “horrible fratricidal violence” in Ukraine. The fate of Christians in war has been longstanding concern of the Pope’s, given his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and growing threats against Christian communities in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine)—most of which are actually Orthodox, not Catholic.  

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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The Pope’s comments on Ukraine have opened him up to criticism—mainly from Ukraine’s Greek Catholic community—for not being strong enough in condemning Russian aggression. Greek Catholics, who represent about seven percent of the Ukrainian population and live mostly in western regions of the country, follow eastern Christian rites, but accept the authority of the Pope. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, dismissed the Pope’s cautious February statements on the Ukraine war as reminiscent of “Soviet propaganda.” Others in Ukraine complain that the Pope’s views of the conflict in Ukraine shows his “ignorance” about the country. Some even suggest that unnamed “pro-Russian forces in the Vatican” are deceiving him. Nearly all his critics believe Francis has been far too deferential to Moscow for the sake of promoting reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches—a centuries-old goal of the Catholic Church and a process his two immediate predecessors had focused on in the post-Soviet era with few results.   

The reality is more nuanced. A close reading of the Pope’s homily during his mass in Sarajevo, Bosnia on May 7 suggest that he has a more astute understanding of the war and is aware of the dangers of a religious leader stepping into a conflict—particularly one where religion hangs loosely in the background. Ukraine is religiously diverse. Its main religion is Orthodoxy, but that community is divided into three branches—only one of which accepts the authority of the Patriarch in Moscow. In addition to the Greek Catholic community, Ukraine is also home to small Jewish and Muslim minorities. Its main Muslim group—the Crimean Tatars—now lives under Russian occupation, although some have fled the peninsula to other parts of Ukraine. Thus far, religion has not been at the center of this conflict. The Pope appears intent on keeping it that way. 

This seems to be what the Pope was trying to do in Sarajevo. When releasing the full text of his Sarajevo homily, the Vatican underscored that Sarajevo—once known for its vibrant cosmopolitan culture–now knows “the abyss of pain and suffering inflicted by war” and is an appropriate venue for the Pope to speak out against the conflicts of today. The contemporary conflict that comes to mind in reading the homily—which was given just three days before his meeting with Putin—is Ukraine.

Like the Russia-Ukraine war, the Balkan wars sprang largely from political elites who pursued their own narrow purposes. Concerned about losing political and economic power as the Yugoslav state collapsed, the political leaders of its constituent parts took to the bully pulpit to stoke ethnic, religious, and historic grievances, allying themselves with nationalists and the criminal world to advance their political agendas. The Balkan wars soon took on a life of their own. Russia’s leadership found itself in a similar position in 2014. Having banked on Yanukovych to keep his Eurasian integration project alive and prevent Ukraine from moving closer to Europe, Putin allied himself with hardline chauvinists and lashed out at the West in order to thwart the political consequences of Yanukovych’s collapse. Activating elements of the criminal underground to help fight his hybrid war, he cloaked the annexation of Crimea and efforts to seize other areas of Ukraine as necessary to defend ethnic Russians from “fascist” Ukrainians. As was the case in Bosnia, the manufactured conflict quickly became a real and intractable one. 

No doubt with these two wars in mind, Francis in Sarajevo called for political leaders to tone down irresponsible and aggressive rhetoric, which creates an “atmosphere of war” across the globe. He condemned those who “wish to incite and foment this atmosphere deliberately, mainly those who want conflict between cultures and societies.” Recalling Jesus’ words in the Gospel “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the Pope criticized modern-day “preachers of peace” who are “capable of proclaiming peace, even in a hypocritical or indeed duplicitous manner,” but who do not actually make peace. These comments are noteworthy given the repeated failures to implement the Minsk agreements brokered by Putin.

But disagreements between Putin and the Pope are not limited to Ukraine. Recent speculation in Western media about a budding relationship between the two men seems overblown. They have met only once before, and that was before Russia’s aggression in Ukraine upended peace in Europe. The two men appear to be on vastly different political and ideological trajectories when dealing with many issues. The Russian President is known for his lavish lifestyle and elaborate—often doctored—photo-ops that build up a public image as an athlete, strong leader, and man of the people. Francis, by contrast shuns the trappings of his office, does not use the papal residence, and is known to reach out, often spontaneously, to some of the world’s least empowered citizens—the terminally ill, impoverished children, orphans, and the disabled. Putin’s Russia has a poor record for all four groups.  

Since his return to the Kremlin and particularly after the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s Russia has moved increasingly to narrow Russia’s tolerance for diversity and pluralism. Pope Francis, however, has tried to move the Church toward greater tolerance and openness, even if he has not changed official doctrine. For example, Russia has passed (and Putin signed) discriminatory legislation that marginalizes—and contributes to violence against—Russia’s gays and lesbians. The Kremlin presents itself as a defender of traditional Christian values and morality against purportedly decadent influences from the West.

By contrast, Pope Francis has tried to steer the Church away from divisive ideological issues, instead stressing the importance of social justice. He has urged greater openness to and acceptance of gay Catholics, famously stating “who am I to judge” if a gay person seeks God. He also has urged the Church to be more accepting of divorced Catholics, those who have had children out of wedlock, and other marginalized groups, often to the dismay of conservatives in the church. At a time when Putin’s regime has imprisoned some of its critics on charges of blasphemy, the Pope has spoken out against all forms of religious fundamentalism

On foreign policy, it is the case that Putin and the Pope have seen eye-to-eye on some issues—most importantly the Pope’s 2013 opposition to the impending U.S. military strikes on Syria—but for vastly different reasons. The Pope argued against escalating a conflict that would lead to greater civilian casualties, but the Kremlin appeared more concerned with preventing a unilateral show of force by the United States in the Middle East.

On other foreign policy issues, their interests diverge. The Pope, for example, played a role in jumpstarting the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. If normalization succeeds, it could begin to erode Russian political, military, and economic interests in Cuba. Any loss of influence there would be a symbolic blow for Russia, because Cuba was the cornerstone of Moscow’s Cold War policies in Latin America, a region where Russian power and presence has dimmed considerably in the post-Soviet era.

Putin might be looking for a partner in Pope Francis, but the issues that divide them are many. With the Ukraine conflict again on the verge of escalation, that divide will likely only get larger.

  • Paul Stronski