Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill took a stroll among penguins and prayed at Antarctica's Church of the Holy Trinity Feb. 17. (YouTube/russianchurch)

Even the penguins were curious. They waddled up for a closer look at the new visitor, who wore a parka and rubber boots along with his traditional black robes.

A visit to an Antarctic research station Wednesday by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church might seem like an extravagant detour for the 69-year-old Patriarch Kirill. After all, he had just wrapped up a busy Latin American trip that included historic talks with Pope Francis in Cuba.

But take a closer look at Kirill, and the polar swing begins to make more sense.

Kirill has played a role – at various times and various ways – as an influential and reliable voice for Kremlin policies, including domestic crackdowns on dissident and military flexing in places such as Ukraine.


Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill poses at the Bellingshausen station at King George Island of Waterloo, Antarctica. (Igor Palkin/Russian Orthodox Church Press Service photo via AP)

Kirill's encounter last week with the pontiff also carried a bit of Moscow’s political hand. On a history-shaping level, it broke the ice between the Vatican and powerful Russian Orthodox Church – representing two sides of a nearly 1,000-year-old split in Christianity separating East and West.

There was also, however, a distinct stamp of approval from the Kremlin. Russia is looking for any channels to build ties with the West – and seek some outside validation for its aims – even as Moscow faces increasing international pressures over its reach into conflicts including Syria, where Russian airstrikes have aided the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

So think of Kirill’s sojourn in the Antarctic as both a once-in-a-lifetime photo op (it was splashed across Russian media) and some boots on the frozen ground for the Kremlin.

Russia has expanded its presence in Antarctica in recent years and has also expanded claims over the Arctic, part of an ambitious push to secure resources and plant the flag in some of the world’s most remote regions.

Russian state-run television on Thursday emphasized how hard Kirill had worked to get to the Russian research enclave on Waterloo Island, a three-hour flight from Punta Arenas in southern Chile. He also donned a life vest for a boat trip to a penguin rookery on nearby Ardley Island.

"Antarctica is the only place free from weapons, military activity or research into new means of human destruction,” he told a handful of Russian scientists, explorers and others at the Bellingshausen Station research outpost, according to the Interfax news agency.

“This is an example of ideal humankind and proof that people can live so, without borders or arms or hostile competition, that they can cooperate and feel like members of one family," he added.


Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, listens to an explanation at the Bellingshausen station at King George Island of Waterloo, Antarctica. (Igor Palkin/Russian Orthodox Church Press Service photo via AP)

Yet Russia appeared to stake out a stronger strategic interest in the region last month with the arrival of an oceanographic research ship, the Admiral Vladimirsky, on a mission backed by Russia’s navy. The vessel reached Antarctic waters six months after Russia unveiled an updated maritime doctrine. It emphasized the Arctic as another front to counter NATO influence and expand Russian naval presence in potential new shipping lanes opened by receding sea ice.

Last week, Russia presented its claim on a wide swath of Arctic Ocean seabed to the United Nations. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently released footage of armed soldiers training on sleighs pulled by reindeer.

The Antarctic was not overlooked in the new policies, which included improvements on Russia’s Antarctic research stations and the construction of new polar research vessels, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

“Seeing that in the last few years there have been many new developments with regard to Antarctica, this has become a very important region for Russia,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in July.

Much of the Antarctic attention involved long-range strategy rather than current gains. The continent holds vast mineral deposits, although a treaty currently bans mining them. The continent is also overseen by agreements that ban any permanent military presence, although some nations have made territorial claims.

Michael Birnbaum in Moscow contributed to this report.