Putin's Latest Challenge: Pope Francis

No one wants to mess with Russian President Vladimir Putin — or as Putin would say, no one wants to deal with the consequences of dipping into Russia Bear's honey pot. But if there's one person on Earth who could soften the Russian leader, it would be Pope Francis, who's shaping up to be the international arbitrator we needed. Francis will meet with Putin at the Vatican on Wednesday, a move that may make or break their burgeoning relationship.

It's worth noting that Putin was unceremoniously excluded from the G7 Summit, so it's truly the work of God that Francis has extended an invitation to the Russian politician. This will only be the second meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and Russia's supreme leader, and it reportedly has the Vatican on edge.

According to The Guardian, Kenneth Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told reporters during a news briefing this week that Vatican aides are trying to push Francis toward the offense. It's time, Hackett said, for Francis to get tough on Russia and its annexation of Crimea, a Russian-majority area that was formerly part of Ukraine until early 2014. The Russian annexation sparked aggressive military conflict in eastern Ukraine, and warfare is still ongoing despite several promises of ceasefires and year-long sanctions enacted by the United States and the European Union.

Hackett said Francis, who's been something of a diplomat during his papacy, is certainly aware of the ongoing violence in Ukraine. The U.S. ambassador told reporters that he's hoping the pontiff will "say more about concerns on territorial integrity" when he sits down with Putin on Wednesday.

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Will Francis challenge Putin, and does he even have enough diplomacy experience to do so? Francis enjoyed a lot of praise late last year when U.S. officials revealed the Holy See played a key role in brokering the release of American contractor Alan Gross and thawing a decades-long standoff between Cuba and the United States. Even Cuban President Raul Castro thanked Francis for his contribution, which included hosting diplomacy meetings between Cuban and U.S. officials. "I have come here [to the Vatican] to thank him for what he has done to begin solving the problems of the United States and Cuba," Castro said while speaking at the Vatican last month.

But when it comes to Ukraine and Russia, Francis may not be such a great peacemaker. Ukrainians were angered by Francis' recent take on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, which the pope called "fratricidal" violence. To Ukrainians who aren't ethnic Russians, the violence is seen as a direct attack by Russia and Putin.

Of course, there's also no reason to suspect that Francis doesn't want to help broker peace in the region. And although most of Ukraine is not under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church — Ukrainians are predominantly members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is separate from the Vatican — Francis has attempted to strengthen his own relations with Orthodox leaders in the region over the last two years. There has also been a growing concern among Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Christians as Russia's influence continues to grow (Russians are members of their own Russian Orthodox Church), but it remains to be seen how Francis will address the speculation of persecution and harassment.

But for once, all eyes will not be on Putin. He has finally been upstaged by, of all people, a socialist Jesuit pope.

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