Putin Meets Pope Francis Amidst Conflicting Expectations

The Associated Press

In a 50-minute visit Wednesday evening, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis in Vatican City, “devoted mainly to the conflict in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East,” according to a Vatican communiqué.

Last Sunday, the Pope spent an hour and forty minutes with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, but in reality, for several days, the Vatican had been far more focused on another meeting: the one Pope Francis will have Wednesday evening with Vladimir Putin.

Rome was in virtual shutdown with Putin’s visit, with Italian police strewn throughout the city and the road leading to Putin’s hotel closed to usual parking.

In Wednesday’s carefully worded communiqué, which pointedly omitted the word “cordial,” which appears in nearly every Vatican statement about the pope’s talks with a world leader, said that the Holy Father asked for “a sincere and concerted effort to achieve peace” regarding the Ukraine situation, and that both parties “agreed on the importance of restoring an atmosphere of dialogue” as well as a common commitment to implement the Minsk agreements.

Reuters described Pope Francis as “stern” in his urging of Putin to make a “sincere and great effort” to achieve peace in Ukraine, and suggested that the usually chatty Pope “seemed stiff and exceptionally formal when he greeted Putin with a curt ‘willkommen’ in German.”

Regarding the conflict in the Middle East, little was conveyed in the Vatican statement, other than “the urgency of seeking peace with the concrete involvement of the international community” and the protection of “religious minorities.”

The leader of the Russian Federation reportedly took advantage of the meeting to ask for assistance in lifting the Ukrainian blockade of the controversial Russian aid intended for the eastern territories.

Kremlin spokesman Yuri Ushakov had already suggested that the two leaders would speak of the situation in Ukraine and “the plight of Christians in the Middle East,” among other topics, but added that he did not know if a possible Papal visit to Russia would be discussed, since “this issue concerns not only the state” but also the Russian Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Hackett, the US ambassador to the Holy See, had urged Pope to take a tougher stance against Vladimir Putin when he meets the Russian president.

So far, Francis has assiduously avoided stern criticism of Russia since its annexation of Crimea.

Hackett said the Vatican “could say more about concerns on territorial integrity” and added that this could be “an opportunity for the Holy Father to privately raise those concerns.”

Conversely, in recent days, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Hilarion reaffirmed his appreciation for the way that Francis has handled the Crimean situation.

For his part, Putin gave his own pre-emptive interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in preparation for his meeting with both Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Pope, in which he laid out his perspective on the Crimean crisis as well as a number of other issues. The phrase that rang out from the interview and was highlighted by Italian news sources was his statement “I am not an aggressor,” which raised many an eyebrow.

For the Holy See, however, Putin continues to be seen as a necessary partner in dialogue, especially valuable for curbing Muslims terrorism in the Middle East and beyond.

The Vatican has resisted taking a strong stance against Russia on the Ukrainian question, despite urgent appeals, including a recent petition from Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek-Catholic church in Kiev, to come out more strongly against Russian aggression.

Jeb Bush, who is currently in Berlin on a five-day tour of Europe, said on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “bully” and declared that the United States and its allies in Europe should be resolute in responding to Russian aggression.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I think to deal with Putin you need to deal from strength – he’s a bully and … you enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that,” he said.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter: @tdwilliamsrome