20 years under Putin: a timeline

On November 25, Pope Francis held a thirty-five-minute private meeting in Rome with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Kremlin’s and the Orthodox Church’s attempts to improve relationship with Vatican are a part of Russia’s strategy to demonstrate that Moscow can provide an alternative to Washington.



Pope Francis held a thirty-five-minute private meeting in Rome on November 25 with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was the fourth time Putin has visited the Vatican—he met with Pope John Paul II in 2000 and 2003 and had an audience with Pope Benedict in 2007. This time the two leaders focused primarily on the Middle East. In what the Vatican called “cordial” talks, Francis and Putin emphasized “the need to bring an end to the violence in Syria” and to ensure humanitarian assistance to people affected by the fighting. They also discussed the “life of the Catholic community in Russia” (there are about 700,000 Catholics in the country). But a spokesman for the Holy See said that the subject of relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, tense since they divided a millennium ago, did not come up. The Pope nevertheless asked Putin to send his regards to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The meeting capped weeks of intense diplomatic activity among Rome, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Kremlin. In September, Francis wrote Putin as Saint Petersburg prepared to host the G20 summit of economic leaders. In that letter, the Pope spoke of the need for a more just global economic system and a more dignified life for all citizens, from the “eldest to the unborn,” and not just for inhabitants of the G20 states. Francis also stressed the urgency of ending the Syrian conflict. In November, Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the External Church Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, attended a Catholic-Orthodox conference in Rome on family values and floated the idea of a meeting between Francis and Kirill in a “neutral country” (as opposed to a papal visit to Russia, which many Orthodox officials and members of the faith would strongly oppose). Simultaneously in Moscow, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan met with Kirill, who reportedly said to the cardinal, “Never before have our churches had as many things in common as they do today.” The Moscow patriarch expressed hope that their “historical disagreements will stop playing a negative role” in their relationship.

Those disagreements are longstanding indeed. Although the two churches share essentially the same faith (save a marked disagreement over the role of the Pope), they are divided by historical grievances, different liturgical practices and theological traditions, and, above all, sharply divergent approaches to secular power. Specific issues have also proven intractable: the Orthodox fear that a greater Catholic presence in Russia could lead to Rome poaching followers the Orthodox claim as their own; a stronger Catholic role could undermine the Russian Orthodoxy’s claim to spiritual preeminence (especially if led by a charismatic, popular pontiff such as John Paul II or Francis); there are disagreements over Church property, especially in Western Ukraine, where the so-called Uniates acknowledge the Pope’s authority but have Eastern liturgical practices; and, finally, the Catholic Church, which helped undermine Communism first in Poland and then elsewhere, offers people a different way of thinking about the world. Russia’s political rulers, in turn, have often linked the Roman Catholic Church with “enemies” such as Poland and Germany to encourage Russian nationalism and xenophobia. In Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Stalin-era film (released as Nazism was on the rise), the miter of the Catholic bishop for the Teutonic knights was adorned with a swastika.

For Rome, the meeting between the Pope and Putin may be the start of a recalibration of Vatican diplomacy, away from its centuries-long de facto alliance with the great Western powers, and toward a more multipolar strategy.

For Rome, the meeting between the Pope and Putin may be the start of a recalibration of Vatican diplomacy, away from its centuries-long de facto alliance with the great Western powers, and toward a more multipolar strategy. Like his immediate predecessors, Francis appears to see Europe as threatened by secularism, moral relativism, the hyper individualization of religion, and materialism. On November 26 he issued an “apostolic exhortation” that strongly criticized income inequality and “trickle down” economic policies, a condemnation widely seen as aimed at Europe and the United States. Moreover, papal affinity for the United States, so pronounced under John Paul—–in part the result of a conviction that the church-state division in religion is congenial to faith—seems to be a smaller part of Francis’s worldview. Some Vatican officials have seen the libertarian and congregationalist streaks in American culture as incongruous with Catholic ecclesiology and social teaching.

More recently, tensions between the Obama administration and the U.S. Catholic bishops have erupted over the applicability of controversial government health care mandates to religious institutions. The U.S. administration has also incurred Catholic criticism by appearing more interested in advancing LGBT rights in foreign policy (a matter on which Francis has sounded relatively liberal), than the freedom to worship, especially in places like Syria and Egypt, where Christian minorities have been subjected to terrorism and violence during the Arab Spring. The Orthodox Church, with its roughly 300 million members, conservative doctrines, and a traditionally influential role in society, is a natural ally of Rome in these “culture wars.”

Putin, meanwhile, has brought the Orthodox Church to the forefront of Russian public life, both as a way to project Russian soft power and as part of his strategy of rule. Putin claims to be a man of faith and makes public efforts to show his close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. But it is difficult to gauge his religious views, since he sometimes says things that appear alien to the church’s traditions. His background in the security services also raises doubts about his sincerity.

Last summer in the Kremlin, Putin and Kirill reasserted their claim to leadership of the Orthodox world when they hosted a summit of the leaders of all fifteen national Orthodox Churches on the occasion of the 1,025th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by the East Slavs in what is today Ukraine. The message they sent to a Ukraine struggling to decide between East and West—that Ukraine is culturally, religiously, and geopolitically tied to Russia—was clear. Both Putin and Kirill also spoke about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. In recent months the Kremlin has also emphasized policies of conservative nationalism, support for traditional international law, and strict noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, as well as a preference for evolutionary development rather than revolutionary upheaval. Thus the Putin regime—and by association the Russian Orthodox Church—is strongly opposed to liberal interventionism, the promotion of democracy, and regime change instigated from abroad.

It appears that the goals of the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church are to reshape international perceptions of Russia, show that Putin is a global leader, and demonstrate that Moscow can provide an alternative to Washington.

It appears that the goals of the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church are to reshape international perceptions of Russia, show that Putin is a global leader, and demonstrate that Moscow can provide an alternative to Washington at a time when the West is becoming increasingly decadent. As part of this strategy, forging a better relationship with the Catholic Church is a way for the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church to spread their influence farther afield. After Russia restored diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 2009, for example, the Italian government started returning to the Russian Church land that had previously been used for churches and pilgrimage centers.

At home, Putin has also allied himself with the Orthodox Church, whose support for the regime’s domestic course wavered between support and neutrality during his first two presidential terms. Putin has portrayed himself as the defender of traditional values, from jailing members of the band Pussy Riot to endorsing the law against “gay propaganda.” This campaign has the support of church leaders, who realigned themselves with the Kremlin as the protest movement lost momentum in early 2012. At this year’s Valdai conference with foreign experts, Putin repeatedly invoked references to morality and spirituality, praising Christianity and conservative religious values and attacking the political correctness that often clashes with them.

Despite the Orthodox Church’s growing influence and closeness to the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill seems aware that being too closely tied to the regime has its dangers. On November 25 he rejected an initiative by legislators in the Duma to enshrine the special role of Orthodoxy in the Russian constitution. He claimed that only an independent church can preach successfully. The patriarch has also denied charges that the church is too close to the state. Although the recent diplomatic initiatives should bring Rome and Moscow somewhat closer together, these concerns seem alien to the new Argentinian Pope, who lives modestly and avoids the trappings of high office. Despite some shared values with his Eastern counterparts, any assessment by Francis of the alternate worldview Putin offers would, therefore, almost certainly be more critical than the Pope’s recent statements on materialism in the West.