Russia has lodged a formal protest with the Vatican over Pope Francis’s latest condemnation of atrocities in Ukraine, in which the pontiff blamed most of the cruelty on Chechens and other minorities in an apparent effort to spare ethnic Russian troops from criticism.
The Kremlin’s ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, told the RIA Novosti agency that he met a Vatican official on Monday to express his “indignation” over Francis’s comments, which were contained in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America.
In his comments, Francis defended his usual reluctance to call out President Vladimir Putin by name, saying it is clear that Ukraine is the “martyred” victim in the war.
But he also said that, while it was the Russian state that invaded Ukraine, “generally, the crue;lest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryats and so on”.
The Pope’s apparent distinction between the mostly Muslim Chechens and Buddhist Buryats on the one hand, and ethnic Russian fighters on the other, angered Moscow.
RIA Novosti quoted Mr Avdeev as saying: “I expressed indignation at such insinuations and noted that nothing can shake the cohesion and unity of the multinational Russian people.”
Throughout the nine-month war, Francis has tried to avoid direct condemnation of Moscow for fear of antagonising the Russian Orthodox Church, which has strongly backed Mr Putin’s invasion on religious grounds.
The pontiff has previously blamed “mercenaries” for the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, drawing criticism from the Kyiv government.
In his new comments, he was clearly trying to draw a line between those who follow “the Russian tradition” and allegedly more brutal Chechens and Buryats, when in fact Russian troops have been accused of war crimes regardless of their ethnicity.
While it was not entirely clear what Francis meant by people who follow the “Russian tradition”, it could be a reference to the predominantly Russian Orthodox Christian roots of an estimated 68% of the population.
The RIA report also cited the regional leader of Buryatia, Alexey Tsydenov, as describing the Pope’s remarks as “at least strange”.
Buryatia, a Siberian republic which forms part of Russia, is home to indigenous Buryat Mongolians, who were reported to be disproportionally targeted by Moscow’s mobilisation efforts alongside other minorities.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of predominantly Muslim Chechnya, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, though fighters from the southern Russian republic have participated on both sides in the war.
Pro-Kyiv volunteers, for example, have named their group after a late leader who headed Chechnya’s drive for independence from Moscow.
The latest dust-up over the Pope’s comments come as the Holy See tries to play a mediating role in the conflict. Francis and the Vatican secretariat of state have made repeated offers to try to facilitate peace talks, to no avail.
Asked on Monday about the latest offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow appreciates the gesture but he noted that Ukraine has refused to hold talks.
The Vatican has a tradition of not taking sides in conflicts, believing it can be a more effective peacemaker with behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
And Francis has tried to balance his rhetoric, expressing solidarity with the “martyred” people of Ukraine while also seemingly acknowledging Kremlin complaints about Nato “barking at its gates” by its eastward expansion.
The day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Francis made a very public gesture by going to the Russian embassy to the Holy See to personally appeal to Mr Avdeev for peace.