ROME – Russian spokespersons have praised what they called Pope Francis’s “balanced approach” to the war in Ukraine, in the wake of protests by both Ukrainian civic and Church officials that the pontiff recently used rhetoric which, even if unintentionally, could be seen as boosting Russia’s imperial ambitions.

The controversy erupted in the wake of an Aug. 25 video address by Pope Francis to a group of Russian Catholic youth gathered in St. Petersburg, when the pope told the young people they are “heirs of the great Mother Russia.”

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A spokesman for the Ukrainian government objected that such language amounted to “imperialist propaganda,” and the leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said the pope’s words had caused “great sorrow and concern.”

Yet in an interview Tuesday with the Italian news agency Ansa, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, expressed appreciation for the pope’s language.

Dialogue between the Vatican and Russia about the conflict in Ukraine “is continuing,” Zakharova said, describing relations between the Holy See and the Kremlin as marked by “a mutually respectful and constructive” spirit.

The Kremlin, she said, “greatly appreciates the balanced approach of the Vatican on the conflict in Ukraine and the efforts of the Holy See, and Pope Francis personally, to seek a peaceful solution, which unfortunately have been rejected by the regime in Kyiv.”

Zakharova’s reference likely was to a May visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Rome, when Zelensky told the pope that Ukraine “does not need” a mediator in its conflict with Russia and urged the Vatican to endorse Ukraine’s own peace plan.

In the same interview, Zakharova also claimed that Russia’s economy is continuing to grow despite Western-imposed sanctions, a result, she said, which “horrifies the entire NATO axis of evil.”

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, also expressed gratitude to Pope Francis in an interview with the Russian agency Tass.

“The pontiff knows Russian history, and this is very positive,” Peskov said.

“Our legacy isn’t limited to Peter or Catherine, it’s much older. The duty of the state, of society, of teachers in schools and universities, is to transmit this patrimony to the masses. That the pope sounds in unison with this duty is very gratifying.”

Zakharova’s appreciative comments about Pope Francis mark a sharp reversal for the Russian spokesperson from last November, when she was sharply critical after the pontiff used an interview with America magazine to suggest that Russian-allied ethnic minorities such as Chechens and Buryats were responsible for some of the most serious war crimes during the conflict.

“This is no longer Russophobia, it’s a perversion of the truth on a level I can’t even name,” Zakharova told the Russian news agency TASS at the time, referring to the pope’s comments.

A month later, however, Zakharova said during a briefing that the Vatican had apologized for the pope’s comments, and that the Kremlin considered the matter closed.

For its part, the Vatican issued a statement Tuesday insisting that the pope’s comments to the Russian youth had been misinterpreted, and that he “certainly did not intend to exalt imperalistic logic.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Vitalij Skomarovskyi, president of the Latin rite bishops’ conference in Ukraine, said Tuesday that references to “great Russia” unfortunately perpetuate “the myth of humanism and greatness of state that’s been waging a brutal and bloody war against Ukraine for nine years.”

At the same time, Skomarovskyi said there should be “no doubt” about Francis’s support for the Ukrainian people, and he invited Ukrainians not to focus on “single declarations” by the pope but rather the overall context of his engagement since the beginning of the conflict.

Misunderstandings, he said, are caused by “the lack of an adequate dialogue between the Pope and Ukraine, at both the diplomatic and ecclesiastical level.”