Putin’s unlikely friend


Catholic Herald, 11 July 2019

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.

Continue reading at the Catholic Herald: https://catholicherald.co.uk/magazine/putins-unlikely-friend/