On Thursday, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New York for a conversation described by Russia as “productive” and as an opportunity to explain its reasons for the war in Ukraine.

In a statement following the Sept. 22 meeting between Parolin and Lavrov, which took place on the margins of the United Nations’ general assembly in New York, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that during the conversation, “the minister made clear the reasons for the ongoing crisis in relations between Russia and the West, which is the result of NATO’s crusade to destroy Russia and split the world.”

Russia’s actions, the ministry said, “are designed to ensure independence and security, as well as to counter the United States’ hegemonic aspirations to control all global processes.”

Lavrov, the statement said, also made reference to upcoming referendums in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year declared separate independent people’s republics, as well as referendums in the southeastern Ukrainian cities of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

Lavrov apparently told Parolin that these referendums “are fully consistent with international law and serve to ensure the legitimate rights of the residents of these territories to self-determination and to building their life in accordance with their own civilizational, cultural and religious traditions.”

According to the statement, both parties also referenced “the productive nature of the ongoing Russian-Vatican state-to-state and church-to-church dialogue at the high and highest levels,” and touched on several “priority bilateral and international cooperation issues.”

The meeting between Parolin and Lavrov took place as the Vatican has struggled to engage Russian civil and ecclesial authorities over its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, sparking a war that has displaced millions and claimed thousands of lives, many of whom are civilians, including children.

It also comes on the heels of a missed opportunity for Pope Francis to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a vocal supporter of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, during his visit to Kazakhstan last week.

Francis and Kirill are known to have opposing views on the Ukraine war, and while the pope has yet to directly point the finger at Russia or Putin as the instigators of the war, he has been vocally critical, calling the war “madness.”

The two leaders held a historic first meeting in Havana, Cuba in 2016, and were scheduled to meet for the second time in Jerusalem in June; however, the Vatican backed out over the diplomatic backlash the meeting would have created given Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

It was speculated that they would meet while attending a high-profile interfaith summit in Kazakhstan, which took place last week, however, Kirill cancelled previous plans to attend, and sent a delegation in his place led by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Sevryuk of Volokolamsk, the second top-ranking cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pope Francis and Sevryuk held a brief conversation on the margins of the summit, which Sevryuk told journalists later was “cordial” and touched on a potential second meeting, which he said would have to be “well organized” and come with some sort of joint appeal.

However, Sevryuk also said previous comments by Pope Francis saying Kirill should not act as Putin’s “altar boy” were offensive, and “not useful for Christian unity.”

On his return flight from Kazakhstan, the pope did not touch on a potential second meeting with Kirill or the Vatican’s efforts to assist in negotiations in the war but suggested that arming Ukraine could be morally acceptable “if it is done with the conditions of morality.”

Apart from the pope’s decision in the days immediately following the outbreak of the war to drop in on the Russian Embassy to the Holy See to speak to the ambassador, Parolin’s meeting with Lavrov is the highest-level meeting between Vatican and Russian officials since the war began.