The pope has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and denounced a “cruel and senseless war” but without ever mentioning Putin or Moscow by name.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church also said he would not be travelling to Ukraine anytime soon.

“I’m not going to Kyiv for now. I feel I shouldn’t go. I have to go to Moscow first, I have to meet Putin first,” he said.

Francis also said Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally, “cannot become Putin’s altar boy”.

Dialogue with the Orthodox Church, which separated from the Catholic Church in 1054, is a stated priority of Francis’s pontificate.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the pope’s calls for peace have contrasted with Kirill’s approach.

Kirill has defended Putin’s “military operation” in Ukraine and the fight against Russia’s “external and internal enemies”.