Pon­tiff presses Putin to make an ef­fort to end war in Ukraine

Be­fore his visit with Fran­cis, the Krem­lin leader re­minds Italy it stands to lose valu­able trade with Rus­sia.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tom Kington Kington is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

ROME — Pope Fran­cis urged Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to make a “sin­cere ef­fort to achieve peace” in Ukraine when the two lead­ers met pri­vately Wed­nes­day at the Vat­i­can.

Dur­ing the 50-minute meet­ing, the pope em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of ad­her­ing to a cease-fire agree­ment reached in Fe­bru­ary and also called for hu­man­i­tar­ian work­ers to be al­lowed ac­cess to all parts of the coun­try, the Vat­i­can said in a state­ment.

Fran­cis has been crit­i­cized for not tak­ing Rus­sia to task for an­nex­ing Crimea last year and pro­vid­ing sup­port to pro-Rus­sia in­sur­gents who are fight­ing for sep­a­ra­tion from Ukraine.

In Fe­bru­ary, Fran­cis con­demned the con­flict as a “war be­tween Chris­tians,” drawing protests from Svi­atoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who said the war was the re­sult of a for­eign in­va­sion.

Ukrainian Catholics “ex­pected more from their spir­i­tual fa­ther,” Shevchuk said.

Putin has sought to boost Rus­sia’s arms in­dus­try and has been ac­cused of stir­ring up the conf lict in Ukraine, the kind of be­hav­ior that Fran­cis has railed against. In March, the pope called on God to “con­vert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons!”

But Fran­cis counts on Rus­sia’s sup­port to de­fend Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East and is also seek­ing to main­tain good re­la­tions with the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church.

Be­fore the meet­ing Wed­nes­day, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the Holy See, Ken­neth Hack­ett, said he hoped Fran­cis would ad­mon­ish Putin over Rus­sia’s role in Ukraine.

“We think they could say some­thing more about con­cern of ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity, those types of is­sues,” Hack­ett said in Rome. “It does seem that Rus­sia is sup­port­ing the in­sur­gents. And it does seem that there are Rus­sian troops in­side Ukraine. This is a very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion.”

Putin ar­rived at the Vat­i­can more than an hour late, ex­ceed­ing the 50 min­utes he made the pope wait at their first meet­ing in 2013.

The Rus­sian leader flew to Rome from Mi­lan, where he re­ceived a warm wel­come from Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi. Greet­ing Putin as Rus­sia’s “dear” pres­i­dent, Renzi praised his fight against ter­ror­ism and asked for his help in end­ing the an­ar­chy in Libya.

It was a far cry from the tough words that Pres­i­dent Obama had for Putin this week. At a gath­er­ing in Ger­many of lead­ers of ma­jor in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries, Obama said Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine sug­gested that Putin was try­ing to recre­ate “the glo­ries of the Soviet em­pire.”

The Rus­sian leader was not in­vited to the Group of 7 meet­ing.

Italy has backed West­ern sanc­tions on Rus­sia but is wor­ried about los­ing valu­able trade with the coun­try, a fear Putin that al­luded to Wed­nes­day.

“If the sanc­tions against Rus­sia are not with­drawn, Ital­ian com­pa­nies will lose con­tracts” worth more than $1 bil­lion, Putin said while tour­ing the Mi­lan World’s Fair with Renzi.

“We can find other part­ners, but it would be a shame to give up our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Italy.”

Putin called Italy “a great part­ner of Rus­sia in Europe,” not­ing that their re­la­tion­ship dated back 500 years.

Italy has of­ten sought to act as a mid­dle­man be­tween Rus­sia and the West, of­fer­ing a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the United States.

But trade was the main is­sue for the large group of Ital­ian in­dus­tri­al­ists who joined Renzi and Putin at their meet­ing in Mi­lan.

The Ital­ian em­ploy­ers or­ga­ni­za­tion Con­find­us­tria has said that a Rus­sian em­bargo im­posed in re­sponse to West­ern sanc­tions cost Italy $566 mil­lion in luxury ex­ports in 2014.

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