In light of Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin meeting Wednesday at the Vatican, it’s useful to recall the first meeting between the two in November 2013. The scariest photo of Pope Francis was taken at that meeting. Staring at the Russian president from across his desk, the pope’s demeanor suggested he wasn’t afraid of the former KGB officer who has had an iron-fisted rule over the nation for a better part of a generation. Photos speak a thousand words, but in this case, perhaps it was a bit deceptive.
John Allen wrote Tuesday:
This partnership was originally formed in September 2013 when both Francis and Putin called on the U.S. to not take military action in Syria. Francis and Putin used two very different means to communicate their messages: Francis held a worldwide prayer vigil for peace, while Putin penned a somewhat audacious editorial in The New York Times in which he cited Pope Francis’s objection as a reason for the U.S. to not get involved in the region.
Russia-sponsored media have suggested such partnerships make Putin and Francis champions of similar values—which is clearly overstated. But Francis’s working relationship with Putin isn’t without concern. Some have criticized the pope for being too soft on Putin, particularly after Russia invaded the Crimea region in Ukraine last year. In fact, some of the pope’s strongest critics are bishops in the region.
Yet a little more than two years into his tenure, I still think Pope Francis is the best politician in the world. Twice in his relatively short papacy he’s made significant foreign policy progress.
In June 2014, Francis convened an unprecedented Vatican meeting between then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a new way forward between the warring nations. Just a few months earlier, a frustrated Secretary of State John Kerry said his efforts to do the same had failed.
And last December, Francis helped usher in a new era of peace and dialogue between U.S. and Cuba. During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, he credited the pope for his crucial role in the process. Just last month, Cuban President Raul Castro said that if Francis keeps going in the same direction, he might even pray again and consider a return to the Catholic Church.
If Francis can help make progress with Putin in resolving the crisis in Ukraine, the pope will have achieved a diplomatic triple crown.