VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis told an Italian newspaper he had offered to travel to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin to try to end Russia’s war in Ukraine and suggested the invasion might have been provoked by NATO’s eastward expansion.
Francis said he made the offer about three weeks into Russia’s invasion, via the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but has yet to hear back.
Francis’ lengthy interview with Corriere della Sera newspaper underscored the Vatican’s complicated policy on Ukraine, where it is caught between denouncing the atrocities while not alienating Russia and its Orthodox Church.
Popes for decades have sought to visit Moscow as part of the longstanding effort to heal relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which split with Rome more than 1,000 years ago. But an invitation has never been forthcoming.
“Of course, it would be necessary for the leader of the Kremlin to make available some window of opportunity. But we still have not had a response and we are still pushing, even if I fear that Putin cannot and does not want to have this meeting at this moment,” Francis was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera.
Francis recalled that he spoke in March with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, for 40 minutes by videoconference and for the first half “with paper in hand, he read all of the justifications for the war.”
“I listened and told him: ‘I don’t understand any of this. Brother, we are not clerics of the state, we cannot use language of politics, but that of Jesus. For this we need to find the paths of peace, to stop the firing of arms.’”
He added that Kirill “cannot turn into Putin’s altar boy,” a dismissive term used by a top U.S. Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop.
Francis has frequently denounced the weapons industry and the announced increases in defense spending by the West in recent weeks. But he has also defended the right of Ukrainians to protect their territory from the Russian invasion, in line with Catholic social doctrine. He told Corriere he felt he was too removed to judge the morality of resupplying the Ukrainian armed forces from the West.
But he also said he was trying to understand why Russia had reacted as it had. Maybe “this barking of NATO at Russia’s door” had prompted it, he was quoted as saying, “An anger that I don’t know if you can say was provoked, but maybe facilitated.”
Francis has given a handful of interviews of late to friendly media emphasizing his call for an end to the war and initiatives to provide humanitarian relief to Ukrainians. He has defended his decision to not call out Putin or Russia publicly, saying popes don’t do so. But he freely named Putin in his remarks to Corriere, and seemed to equate the carnage in Ukraine with the genocide in Rwanda a quarter-century ago.
“Such brutality, how can you not try to stop it? Twenty-five years ago in Rwanda we saw the same thing,” he was quoted as saying.