On July 4, Pope Francis announced that he had the intention to visit Moscow and Kyiv as soon as possible. The head of the Vatican is regularly speaking to Ukrainian President Zelensky but would like to visit Putin before heading toward Kyiv. He believes that he might be the neutral agent that could convince Putin to put an end to the war.
On the other side of the line, in Moscow, there are different reactions to this idea. In the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most are in favour of such a visit. Even in the Presidential administration, the reaction is pretty positive, and they view this controversial proposal favourably. But that is not the case within the FSB and the military. There, it is another story, and the intervention of Francis is viewed with at least suspicion and more usually with complete reluctance.
The main actor of this diplomatic move is the head of the World Union of Old Believers Leonid Sevastianov. Sevastianov has access to the Pope and is highly considered by him, and is the one whom the Supreme Pontiff would listen to when it comes to Russia. He is also the one lobbying the Presidential administration in Russia, pushing the idea that the Vatican is the only “neutral” State and then the only one in a position to act as a genuine mediator. Leonid Sevastianov is a strong Christian, who strongly believes that his spiritual mission is to do all in his power to put an end to the war.
But the fiercer opposition is coming from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Moscow Patriarch Kirill. Kirill is a strong supporter of the war, and justifies it, as several religious leaders in Russia, by the need of protecting the Christian world from the decadent West corrupted by cults and pagans, a message that is embraced by the Kremlin. His biggest fear is to see the Pope coming into his “territory”, preaching for peace. Even before the war, Kirill opposed the coming of the Vatican’s head, and the reason was then clear: Kirill is poorly considered by the believers, and barely attracts none (or very few) when he publicly appears. If Pope Francis would come to Russia, it’s likely that he attracts thousands of Christians to greet him, which would definitely undermine Kirill’s image in the country.
So Kirill is activating his network behind the scene to prevent Sevastianov to succeed, which is not without risk for the latter. Kirill is a former agent of the KGB and does not back off from dirty tricks to reach his goals. Sevastianov, who in fact is a former colleague of Kirill, and worked for years as the director of the St. Gregory the Theologian’s Charity Foundation, the biggest Orthodox Foundation in Moscow founded by Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, has recently declared that the support of the Moscow Patriarch to the war was to be considered as heresy, from a religious point of view. That’s no shy statement by far.
Hilarion himself, who was considered the number 2 of the ROC and was the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, has recently been demoted and sent to a small diocese in Hungary. There is no clear interpretation of this demotion: some say that Hilarion was opposed to the war and was punished for that. Others say that Kirill saw him as a threat as he was in a position to replace him as Patriarch, and some say that it is to have him in a better position to lobby for the ROC on the international scene after Kirill has been sanctioned by the UK, and barely avoided the EU sanctions thanks to the last-minute intervention of Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary.
Nevertheless, if Sevastianov’s diplomacy is a risky one for himself, it is also a steady one. Sevastianov has kept pushing for it since February, gained the support of the Supreme Pontiff and is now making progress in Moscow. Of course, even if he would succeed in getting Francis to Moscow, the big question is will it have any impact on Vladimir Putin? History will tell.