The Pope, the Patriarch, and Putin’s ‘Peace’ Gambit

The Kremlin hopes Pope Francis will say things that soften its image, and enlisted the Russian Orthodox Patriarch to try to persuade him.

02.13.16 5:01 AM ET

MOSCOW — The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, flew from icy Moscow to the warmth of Havana on Thursday for an historic meeting at the airport with Pope Francis. This was the first time leaders of these two great Christian churches have met, much less embraced, in almost 1,000 years, after long and bitter divisions over dogmatic and canonical issues.

But momentous as the meeting may appear in ecclesiastical terms, much of the impetus for it was purely political at a moment of dangerous confrontations and delicate diplomacy between Russia and the West. As some influential voices in Moscow have started talking about the risk of a Third World War, the pope and the patriarch spoke of the need to protect "the future of human civilization."

In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the Moscow patriarchate to play a diplomatic role, to help convince Pope Francis—whose good offices did much to end the decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States—that he should help smooth the way for better understanding between Washington and Moscow.

According to one official close to the Kremlin, who spoke privately to The Daily Beast, the message is supposed to be that Russia is kind-hearted, that it cares about Christians everywhere, and that the West should be careful not to provoke a widening war. The official claimed the patriarch might also complain about “irresponsible American politicians,” including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who has taken the point on U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Spokesmen for the patriarchate have dismissed reports that there this meeting is tainted by political objectives, and it appears that the patriarch himself was none too happy about his assignment.

“Kirill did not want to see the Pope,” says Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies. “He did not want to make Russian nationalists angry. But Putin convinced the patriarch to go, as his public relations agent, because the Kremlin needs the Vatican’s help.”

On his own, the patriarch had many issues to put on the table at the papal meeting: the massacre of Christians in Syria, the Kremlin’s conflicts with Ukraine and with Turkey, the split in the Orthodox church in Ukraine, and peace-threatening tensions with the West.

The final communiqué presented both churches as defenders of Christians and of a Christian Europe. And both churches have been alarmed by the devastation afflicting their followers Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. “In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated," read the final document. "Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.”

But the two leaders did not pray together and did not meet in a church. The encounter was in an airport lounge. “The Moscow Patriarchate did not intend to make any compromises with the Catholic Church,” Bunin told The Daily Beast.

Globally, Kirill leads a powerful and influential church of more than 165 million believers out of 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world, even though it is only a fraction the size of the pope’s Roman Catholic Church, which numbers roughly 1.2 billion people.

A pro-Kremlin political analyst, Yuriy Krupnov,  told The Daily Beast that Moscow is counting on Kirill to “bring diplomacy out of the area of demonization, where Russia considers America the empire of evil and America sees Russia as the center of evil.” As Krupnov noted dramatically, this is a time “when the world is steps away from an accidental Third World War that really comes out of purely geopolitical misunderstandings.”

Nor is Krupnov the only one sounding apocalyptic alarms. WWIII talk is becoming commonplace in Russia. “Some of my colleagues are already burying canned food in their gardens to prepare for the black day [when such a war begins],” says Sergei Markov, a member of the Public Chamber, a state institution that monitors Russian government activities. 

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Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on his way to the Syria security talks in Munich this week, said that foreign boots on the ground in the Syrian conflict could draw nations into “a permanent war.”

Putin has been building toward this theme for months. On Dec. 31, Putin named the United States as Russia’s enemy number one, claiming that economic sanctions imposed by American authorities were a threat to Russian national security, as well as to its economic and scientific development.

The Kremlin sees the Vatican as a multi-dimensional power—bigger, in some ways, than what Russia considers “the West.”  That is one reason why Putin has twice met with the Pope Francis in the recent years to discuss the importance of changing the political climate.

But whether the pope believes Putin’s arguments is another question. Talking with Putin last June, the Pope expressed his hopes that Ukraine and Russia would stop fighting and “commit themselves to implementing the Minsk accords” for peace.  Months passed, but the shooting in Eastern Ukraine has not stopped.

Last month’s meeting between Nuland and Putin’s adviser, Vladislav Surkov, is part of an ongoing effort by the U.S. and Russia that is supposed to see the full implementation of the Minsk agreement, but it ended without much progress.

The Munich security meeting about Syria, which Medvedev, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others attended, came out with calls for peace, but even Kerry seemed doubtful the paper proclamations would translate into concrete improvements on the ground.

In terms of church rivalries, the meeting in Havana was symbolic, too, but the substantive problems aren’t going to go away as the Russian Orthodox patriarch tries to shore up his Church’s position in Ukraine, not only against Roman Catholics, largely identified with the pro-Europe forces, but against the Ukraine’s own nationalistic branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

As Ukraine's Greek Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak warned in a statement two days before the meeting in Havana, “In the Putin years, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, increasingly wedded to state power, has sacrificed its freedom and undermined its prophetic vocation while receiving lucrative government support,” he said. Neither Putin nor Kirill want to tolerate Ukrainian independence, whether from the Russian state or the Russian church, Gudziak suggested.

Certainly the atmospherics were better in Havana than in the past. Saint John Paul II tried for decades to build rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, but to no avail. Back in 2001, when Pope John Paul II visited Kiev, followers of the Russian Church held prayers all night to ensure that the pope stayed away from their most sacred sites. No crowds with flowers met the Pope driving along the  city’s central avenue, only rows of police units lined the streets.

Today, many in Kiev fear Pope Francis will be taken in by the blandishments of the Kremlin and Kiril, the standard bearer of Russian religious nationalism. But it’s unlikely the Jesuit Pope Francis would be so naïve. His goal, no doubt, is to open the door to dialogue, not be seen endorsing the “novorussian” ambitions of Vladimir Putin.

So what did Moscow expect from the papal meeting in Cuban airport on Friday?

“Nobody is talking about bringing the churches closer together or about making any united front with the Vatican,” Krupnov told The Daily Beast. “But since the Vatican is uniquely bigger than just the USA or Europe, we’d like to discuss issues with this power that has so many dimensions.”