ROME – In a moment in which the aftershocks of a recent controversy over his approach to Russia are still being felt, Pope Francis on Monday received the credentials of Moscow’s new ambassador to the Holy See, veteran diplomat Ivan Soltanovsky.
Soltanovsky, 68, who was appointed as ambassador to the Vatican in May, brings a deep résumé to his new post.
He served as Russia’s deputy ambassador to NATO in Brussels from 2017 to 2019, and then as Russia’s last representative to the Council of Europe before Moscow exited the body in March 2022 over tensions related to its invasion of Ukraine.
In an interview with the Russian news agency Ria Novosti after his encounter with Pope Francis, Soltanovsky said the pontiff expressed hope for a second meeting with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, after the first-ever encounter in Havana in 2016.
In the wake of that encounter, Francis and Kirill issued a 30-point joint declaration touching on a variety of global challenges. While the document was hailed by many observers as an ecumenical milestone, critics objected to its language on Ukraine, especially a reference to the “conflict” rather than a Russian “invasion.”
At the time, Major Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church said some of his flock felt “betrayed” by the statement,
Soltanovsky, however, said Francis expressed positive memories of the 2016 encounter.
“Pope Francis recalled his meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana warmly, and expressed the hope that it will not be the last, that he can see the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church again,” he was quoted as saying.
Soltanovsky also made reference to the ongoing peace mission of Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, tapped by Francis in May as his personal envoy for the conflict in Ukraine. Zuppi traveled to Moscow in late June for a first cycle of meetings, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently announced that Zuppi shortly will be returning.
According to Soltanovsky, he “discussed the mission of the special envoy of the Holy Father, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, aimed at resolving certain humanitarian problems in the context of the Ukraine conflict, expressing support for it.”
On the humanitarian front, observers have suggested that the Vatican might play a role in the return of Ukrainian children removed from the eastern part of the country by Russian forces, as well as in relaunching a deal allowing for the export of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
The presentation of credentials comes in the wake of a recent contretemps related to comments made by Pope Francis Aug. 25 during a video call with Russian Catholic youth, in which the pontiff called the young people heirs to “Great Mother Russia” and praised “the Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great enlightened empire.”
That language was dismissed as “imperialist propaganda” by a spokesman for the Ukrainian government, and led a senior advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to describe Francis as “pro-Russian” and “not credible.”
Shevchuk issued a statement saying the pope’s words had caused Ukraine’s Catholics “great pain and concern.”
In his interview with Ria Novosti, Soltanovsky did not directly address that controversy, but did say that Pope Francis had confirmed “his respect for Russia and its people, culture and history.”
Married with a daughter, Soltanovsky graduated in international affairs from the State University of Moscow and entered the Kremlin’s diplomatic service. He’s previously served in Russia’s consulate in Karachi in Pakistan and in the Russian embassy in India, as well as the Russian mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In 2019, Soltanovsky addressed the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, effectively triggering the Second World War.
This anniversary is a good occasion to think about how the dogmatism, stubbornness and short-sightedness of European elites of the 1930s triggered a series of fatal events that led humanity to a six-year slaughter,” he said.
“We cannot help but find very unpleasant parallels if we compare the events of that time and the current political processes,” Soltanovsky said.
“Western nations still strive to ensure their security at the expense of others. All recent Russian initiatives to create a common security system in Europe have been ignored,” he said.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, expressed congratulations to Soltanovsky on Monday “as he prepares to take up his high office.”