Pope Francis was encouraged by a top American diplomat to take a tougher stance against before his meeting with the Russian president on Wednesday evening.
The pope, a frequent critic of military action, has taken a cautious approach to criticism of Russia since its annexation of Crimea, and Kenneth Hackett, the US ambassador to the Holy See, said the “could say more about concerns on territorial integrity”.
“Maybe this is an opportunity for the Holy Father to privately raise those concerns,” Hackett said. had “certainly” been made aware of the violence in Ukraine and was not unaware of the crisis, he added.
His comments, which were made in response to reporters’ questions at a briefing on an unrelated matter, came hours before the Argentinian pontiff hosted Putin, in the first meeting between the two leaders since 2013.
Putin arrived in a stretch limousine at the Vatican more than an hour late for his meeting, after flying from Milan, where he had met Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi earlier in the day.
In February, the pope referred to the bloodshed in the Ukrainian conflict as fratricidal, a comment seen as controversial in , where the violence is viewed as a direct consequence of Russian aggression.
Pope Francis has also sought to strengthen ties with the Russian Orthodox church as part of a broader aim to promote Christian unity. Hackett added that Putin had in the past discussed his concern for Christians who were being persecuted in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
“I’d like to see if he has a proposal. That would be very useful,” Hackett said. “Putin has a role … to step up and address some of the major issues.”
In relation to Ukraine, Hackett said: “It does seem that is supporting the insurgents and it does seem that Russian troops are inside Ukraine. So this is a very serious situation and I believe that the G7 has pretty well decided that they are going to continue the sanctions [against Russia].”
Barack Obama, the US president, that world leaders were prepared to tighten sanctions against Russia if the conflict in Ukraine escalated.
Putin has been treated to a far warmer welcome in than he would get in any of the other large EU countries. In remarks in Milan, where Putin visited the Russian pavilion at the city’s expo on the eve of Russia Day, Renzi noted that the next big international event – the 2018 World Cup – would be hosted by Russia. The comment could raise eyebrows given the controversy over Russia’s selection as a host nation in the wake of a massive corruption scandal that has forced the resignation of Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
The presidential visit underscores Russia’s cosy relationship with Italy at a time when Putin is otherwise being treated as a pariah on the world stage.
At a press conference after his meeting with Putin, Renzi said that even though different countries within had “different ideas” about how the sanctions were reached, all of the EU was “in the same place”.
He said that the implementation of a peace plan agreed in Minsk would end the phase of “diatribes and sanctions” against Russia. The two leaders also discussed how sanctions had prevented Italy and Russia from working together on a number of projects involving Italian companies, Renzi said.
In earlier remarks, the Italian prime minister said: “We are in a difficult international situation, not just on account of issues which do not unite us but also for issues which should see us ever more on the same side in a very complicated international scenario, starting with the global threat of terrorism.”
and his friendship with billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier, are so well known that the biggest news out of a critical summit in Milan last October – which included a meeting between Putin and Petro Poroshenko, the president of – was the late-night rendezvous between Putin and Berlusconi at the former premier’s villa that lasted until 3am.
In March, Renzi became the first European leader to be hosted in a bilateral meeting in Moscow since Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year – a meeting that was met with displeasure by the US, according to an American official at the time.
The meeting with Renzi came only days after Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician, was murdered near the Kremlin as he was walking home. Another Italian politician, Matteo Salvini, who heads the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Northern League party, has been an against Russia. The Northern League has even shepherded a movement to create a parliamentary group called Friends of Putin, which has praised the Russian leader as an essential counterweight to the Obama administration.
No Italians were included in the list of 89 EU citizens who were banned from entering by Russian authorities, according to a list that was published by Finnish state broadcaster YLE earlier this month. It appeared to be another sign of close ties between the two countries.
, a former Italian ambassador to Russia who heads the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a thinktank, told the Guardian that Italy had maintained a dialogue with Russia but that did not contradict the fact that Italy was “fully committed” to the European policy in relation to Russia, including the implementation of sanctions and decisions related to the crisis in Ukraine.
Aragona acknowledged there was a perception that was somehow “more sympathetic” to Russia than other European countries. But he added: “I think that is not really a fair representation of the situation. I think the real issue is that [the Italian government] considers the Ukrainian issue a cause of very serious tension but also a symptom of a European order, [or] European architecture, which has not found its stability at the end of the cold war.”
Aragona then added: “We see the European evolution probably more clearly and objectively than some of our European partners.”
In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Putin emphasised the strong trade relationship between Italy and Russia, noting that it had increased elevenfold in recent years from $4.2bn to nearly $49bn, as well as mutual interests in the energy and hi-tech sectors.
While the meeting with Renziwas closely watched, the talks between Putin and Pope Francis are sure to have Rome riveted. The Argentinian pontiff caused controversy last month when he met with Mahmoud Abbas – an encounter in which he might or might not have referred to the Palestinian president as an “”, according to conflicting news reports. His meeting with Putin is being followed just as closely.
A report in Crux, the online news site, noted that Francis and Putin were something of an “odd geopolitical couple” who had formed an “improbably strong partnership”. It began after the pope sent a letter to Putin in 2013 – before the G20 meeting in Moscow – urging leaders to find a non-military solution to the conflict in Syria. In his talk with other world leaders, Putin reportedly quoted from the pope’s letter, saying: “We might listen to the pope.” No military action was taken.
Putin has also spoken out about the “dire” situation facing Christians in the Middle East who are being persecuted and killed – a topic that is frequently also mentioned by the pope. The pontiff has chided world leaders for seeking to diminish anti-Christian violence and the topic was likely raised on Wednesday.
Asked what the pope and Putin were likely to discuss at their meeting on Wednesday, the Vatican told the Guardian: “You can only speculate on the topics of the discussions.”