international analysis and commentary

The Czar and the Pontiff


Judging from the way the G7 went, Italy does not have a great deal of room for maneuver on Russia, and what little room it does have gets narrower every time Putin tries to lure Rome away from the Euro-Atlantic front and every time Italy’s businesses start bellyaching about the sanctions against Moscow. Because to be quite frank, the only result such things ever achieve is that Italy’s allies start considering us an unreliable country again, when in actual fact we take great care to honor the commitments we freely entered into with the EU and the G7. By some bizarre inversion of traditional international political standards, Rome is rather “heretical” in relation to the Western consensus over Russia in verbal terms, yet far from noncompliant in real terms. This is because Italy cannot afford to be, unless of course, in a European situation that’s more delicate than ever, it were to opt for some kind of new neutrality.

If that’s the backdrop, then Matteo Renzi must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Moscow’s strongman finally changed country, arriving (late) for his fifth visit to the Vatican – where the dynamic, on which we can only speculate, may well have been even more interesting. There’s a basic area for joint action shared by Moscow and the Vatican which Pope Francis had already discussed with Putin at their first meeting back in November 2013, and that’s the defense of Christians in the Middle East, in light of a situation which, with the civil war in Syria, the caliphates, and the implosion of Libya, is become increasingly tragic with every passing day. The czars of old styled themselves the protectors of Christian entrenchment in the Middle East, and today’s czar is continuing to pursue that policy with the Roman Catholic Church’s support.

Moreover, from the Vatican’s standpoint, there’s the interest (a traditional interest, but one to which Bergoglio has imparted a fresh boost) in dialogue with the Orthodox Church in Moscow, and in particular with Patriarch Kirill. Pope Francis aims to strengthen cooperation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as much as possible in an effort to contain the now widespread thrusts (in the Americas and in the Far East) in the direction of sectarian fragmentation, and ahead of the synod of eastern churches due to be held in Istanbul in 2016. Hence his dialogue with Putin, for a very specific reason: The Orthodox Church is more than just a religion in Russia, given its traditional extremely close ties with the political authorities. After the collapse of the USSR (and the disappearance of the pressure in favor of nonconfessionalism triggered by the Revolution), the Kremlin rediscovered in the Orthodox Church a crucial ingredient of the Russian people’s identity and patriotism. In short, within certain limits, Putin also represents “his” Church in the Vatican’s eyes.

While these are potential areas for cooperation, there’s also what I would call a far more slippery terrain, fueled by a mutual illusion. In meeting with a Pope who believes more strongly in the G20 world than in the G7 world which has just cold-shouldered Russia, Putin’s laboring under the illusion that being received in Rome is tantamount to the comprehensive imparting of legitimacy to the Kremlin’s policy. That’s impossible. For the philosophy underpinning the new Vatican’s foreign policy, the Ukraine crisis must be resolved peacefully, whereas it has unquestionably revealed blameworthy conduct (use of force, human rights breaches) also on Moscow’s part.

The illusion potentially harbored by the Pope, who intends to breathe new life into a center for mediation in the Vatican (in this connection, it’s worth reading the Lectio Magistralis speech delivered by Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Pontifical Gregorian University in March), is that the success achieved in Cuba can be repeated elsewhere. Let’s hope so. But we shall have to wait and see. It may or may not, but what’s certain is that the former Russian empire’s outskirts don’t lend themselves to easy solutions.

That leaves us with an important message from the Vatican on how to manage the crisis with Moscow: Russia can and must be offered a relationship based on “watertight” compartments wherever cooperation is possible, or indeed crucial, with Libya, Syria, and the struggle against Da’esh heading the list. This is the pragmatism, solidly pegged to principles, of a Pope who is a product of the global world. The task falling to us Italians and to the allies whom we cannot do without is to supplement that with a conscious vision of our long-term interests.


A version of this article was published on the Italian daily La Stampa on June 11, 2015.