ROME—Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis has floated the idea that he wants to take a trip to Kyiv to try to broker a ceasefire. But now he says he would prefer to go to Moscow to try to talk some sense into Vladimir Putin, who he has not outwardly condemned in the now nearly three-month-old war and only did so lightly in a lengthy interview with an Italian newspaper.
“I feel that before going to Kyiv, I must go to Moscow,” he told Corriere Della Sera in an interview that ran Tuesday. But the meeting would not exactly be to condemn Putin, based on what he told the paper. He said that the real “scandal” of Putin’s war is “NATO barking at Russia’s door,” which he said caused the Kremlin to “react badly and unleash the conflict.”
Never mind that the 85-year-old pontiff is unable to walk after tearing a ligament in his knee (for which he says he will soon have surgery), or that Putin won’t even answer his calls. Francis repeated comments he has made in general audiences and in other interviews that the war is nothing more than a giant opportunity for a “trade in arms” and that it is still ongoing because of the constant shuttling of weapons to Ukraine. He has spoken twice by phone to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but mostly to urge him not to fight back. He also went to the Russian embassy to the Holy See days after the invasion began to “register his concerns” about what was happening.
“I don’t know how to answer—I’m too far away—the question of whether it is right to supply the Ukrainians,” he told the paper. “The clear thing is that weapons are being tested there. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things. This is why wars are waged: to test the weapons we have produced. Few people are fighting this trade, but more should be done.”
Whether the Italian journalists didn’t ask—or whether he didn’t answer— there was no mention about what would happen if Ukrainians were not fiercely fighting back, whether it would mean a full annexation of the entire country, millions of deaths, or empowering an already insatiably power-hungry Putin.
Francis veered toward conspiracy theory as he blamed the international community for instigating the war. “You cannot think that a free state can make war on another free state,” he said. “In Ukraine, it seems that it was others who created the conflict. I am pessimistic but we must do everything possible to stop the war.” The pope then said that in a state visit to Rome by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he was told “the Russians have a plan, that everything will end on May 9” without giving any further explanation. May 9 is the day Russia celebrates its liberation and the end of World War II.
The one person Francis will not meet is Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, who the pope fears is becoming “Putin’s altar boy.” Francis said he spoke with him on the phone for 40 minutes on March 15. “And I told him: I completely fail to understand this,” he said. “Brother, we are not state clerics; we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God.”
He said that 40 days ago he asked his secretary of state to start the process of organizing a visit to Moscow instead of Ukraine, but that Putin had not responded. “I am not going to Kyiv for now,” he said. “I feel that I must not go. First I must go to Moscow. First I must meet Putin. But I am also a priest, what can I do? I do what I can. If Putin would only open the door.”
News of the potential trip to Moscow put the Vatican press corps who travel with the pontiff on high alert, with many wondering if they would be arrested if they reported on discussions of the war if they were in Russia.
But even the pontiff concedes that a meeting in Moscow is a long shot. “I fear that Putin cannot, and does not, want to have this meeting at this time,” he said. “But how can you not stop so much brutality?”
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