Will the downturn in Western relations with Russia have an impact on Catholic-Orthodox ties? Not at all, according to Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, who talked by telephone with Pope Francis last Saturday and insisted that both had agreed to continue dialogue.

But with Russian Church leaders appearing to bless President Vladimir Putin’s every move, questions are certain to be posed about the new approaches heralded by Francis’s historic encounter with Kirill in February 2016, and whether these aren’t merely being exploited for propaganda purposes.

Putin’s landslide re-election on March 18, amid reports of ballot-stuffing and intimidation, was cautiously received by Russia’s Catholic bishops’ conference. Its chairman, Bishop Clemens Pickel, told the president that the small Catholic minority prayed he would “justify the confidence of voters”.

But Putin’s victory was glowingly welcomed by Kirill, who congratulated the president on his “convincing victory in open and fair conditions”, adding that voters had backed his vision for “preserving and multiplying the nation’s spiritual, moral and cultural values”.

Since then, the Orthodox closeness to the regime has been underlined by reactions to the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, with the Patriarch’s foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, dismissing British claims of Moscow’s involvement as “nonsense” and a deliberate provocation “aimed at discrediting Russia”.

The Russian Church’s stance is understandable. During Putin’s 18 years in power, its wealth and supremacy in national life have been buttressed by laws and regulations, while Orthodox leaders have shown their gratitude by giving a religious underpinning to Putin’s authoritarian rule, and backing the rebuilding of Russian power at the expense of neighbouring states.

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