Vatican Diplomacy toward the Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine crisis, as a major development, has involved all actors in the international system in some way, and in the meantime, the Vatican, as the highest institution, and Pope Francis, as the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, have also taken a serious approach to the Ukraine crisis.
15 August 2023
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Seyed Ismail Yasini

The Ukraine crisis, as a major development, has involved all actors in the international system in some way, and in the meantime, the Vatican, as the highest institution, and Pope Francis, as the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, have also taken a serious approach to the Ukraine crisis. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Pope Francis has openly condemned the war and expressed interest in traveling to Ukraine and Russia for peace efforts and as a mediator. In addition, during the crisis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the prime minister of the Vatican, has repeatedly emphasized the willingness of the Holy See to mediate and do everything to create a path of dialogue and cooperation. In his last attempt, on May 20, 2023, the Pope appointed Cardinal Matteo Zoppi - Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops' Conference - as his special envoy on the Ukraine crisis.

Regarding the various aspects of the efforts of the Vatican and Pope Francis to solve the Ukraine crisis and the effectiveness and success of these efforts, various points can be mentioned. Pope Francis' stance on the Ukraine war is clearly far from the positions of Western countries; He wants to end Western arming of Ukraine and negotiate an immediate ceasefire. The Pope has explicitly warned against an arms race in Ukraine. In addition to taking the unfavorable position of the West towards the Ukraine crisis, the Pope mostly refrains from naming Russia and Putin personally as the initiator and responsible for the war. Further, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in May 2022, regarding Russia's attack on Ukraine, the Pope implied that NATO's provocations in Russia's surrounding zone facilitated the start of the war.

This approach of the Pope made the western countries not to show favor to the initiatives and efforts of the Vatican to mediate and solve the crisis. In fact, the West accuses the Vatican of siding with Russia and Putin, and this issue has caused the Vatican's diplomacy to face a serious deadlock. As far as can be claimed, in the past sixty years, the Holy See has never been in such a marginal position in relation to a matter of such international importance.

Given that from viewpoint of Ukraine and Western countries, the Pope is not considered a neutral mediator, but rather stands with the aggressor, any initiative of the Vatican in this field will fail. On the other hand, Ukraine, unlike other potential mediators such as Turkey, China or the United Nations, does not regard the Vatican as a political actor or institution, but only as a religious entity that oversees moral issues, which due to the religious structure of Ukraine and the presence of the majority of 74% Orthodox has limited influence in this country.

Another reason for the failure of Vatican diplomacy is related to its request for an immediate ceasefire. In fact, making this proposal from the Vatican means ignoring the internal situation of Ukraine. It seems that Zelenskyy does not have the necessary desire and authority to make such a decision in the current situation, due to the opposition of public opinion. By virtue of a recent survey conducted by the CISR (Center for Insights in Survey Research, National Survey of Ukraine) across Ukraine, including the eastern and southeastern regions (excluding territories occupied by Russia) and published in March 2023, 97% of Ukrainians believe that they will win a war against Russia, and 74% are confident that Ukraine will retain all territory within its internationally recognized borders. If Zelenskyy negotiates under these conditions, there is a risk of provoking another field uprising. It is precisely because of this military, political, and social context that Vatican diplomacy has failed and is unlikely to succeed in the future, except in humanitarian matters related to war.

The obvious manifestation of the Vatican's failure to mediate and resolve the crisis can be clearly seen in the Pope's recent proposal and Ukraine's reaction. At the end of April 2023, after returning from Hungary, the Pope revealed that secret diplomacy was underway to mediate between the conflicting parties. However, Moscow and Kiev denied the news. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, said in May 2023: Russia has "no knowledge" of the Vatican's peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. Moreover, one of the close advisers of Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, also said clearly: "President Zelenskyy has not agreed to such discussions on behalf of Ukraine. "If there are talks going on, they are done without our knowledge."

Pope Francis' particular approach to the Ukraine crisis, in a sense, represents a dramatic break with traditional Vatican philosophy. Historically, the Holy See has always tried to connect itself to the superpower of the day. Over the centuries, this has meant a de facto alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, the French Monarchy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the 20th century, the Vatican connected itself to the Western powers. In the contemporary era, none of the popes benefited as much as John Paul II from the capacity of cooperation with great powers. At the same time, the reasons for Pope Francis' specific approach to the Ukraine war can be listed as follows: First, the population structure of Catholics worldwide. Currently, the vast majority of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Indeed, now more than ever Catholics live outside the West and do not see the war in Ukraine as they do in Europe and the United States.

In other words, the way the Vatican and the Pope look at this crisis should not be evaluated in the equation of East and West conflict, but in the framework of North versus South. In the South, the Ukraine crisis is largely seen as a European affair with no clear heroes or villains. The second reason may be related to the originality of Pope Francis himself. Francis comes as the first pope from Latin America (Argentina) and considering the history of American intervention in this region, naturally, like many Latin American leaders, he is skeptical of the United States and other Western powers.

One of the most obvious points in the Pope's stances regarding the Ukraine crisis is his emphasis on non-Christian ethnic elements. The Vatican considers the war in Ukraine to be a conflict between Christians, and therefore it can be said that the Pope made these statements knowingly. On June 14, 2022, in an interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis said: "The Russians prefer to send Chechens, Syrians and mercenaries to the front." Indeed, the Pope values Russia's Christian identity, even though Russians belong to the Orthodox sect. Therefore, the Pope prefers to blame the Chechens, who are Muslims, for the war.

Generally, rather than sticking to the Western consensus on finding a solution to the Ukraine crisis, Pope Francis appears to be seeking to update a 21st-century version of the Helsinki process—a diplomatic effort to reduce tensions during the Cold War bringing together a diverse set of Eastern and Western countries. Of course, due to the serious opposition of the West, Ukraine's negative approach to the mediation proposal due to the Vatican's lack of neutrality, as well as the Vatican's lack of attention to the internal conditions in Ukraine, this diplomacy has not achieved tangible results and has faced a kind of dead end.

Seyed Ismail Yasini, Expert on European Issues

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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