Lord, cancel it!
Relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin suddenly began to improve. While in Ukraine, a country much more Catholic than Russia, on the contrary, sympathy for Pope Francis has not only decreased, but collapsed. And in the offices of power, political leaders speak out in the sense that they do not consider the Pope, who is a supporter of Russia, as a possible mediator in peace negotiations.
The Pope can't do everything
The Kremlin authorities have definitely decided to improve relations with the Vatican. Moreover, they decided to do it quickly – while Pope Francis is on the throne. The point, of course, is not at all about Ukraine. Ukraine is just bait that the Vatican will surely swallow. In addition, they will also say thank you, because for the current Pope, the peacekeeping mission is either a sedative or simply a status thing.
Of course, Pope Francis would like the war to end – he is completely sincere in his desire for peace and opposition to war. And the fact that he is a Christian plays no less a role here than his southern ignorance regarding our Central European affairs.
He himself admits that peace or even just a cessation of active hostilities is almost a dream that is unlikely to come true at the moment. He is powerless because any conflict ends only when both sides no longer want to fight. Only then are the parties ready to use some kind of mediation to get out of a difficult situation with minimal losses for themselves.
Successful examples of peacemaking done by the Pope have always been associated with the Vatican’s ability to be in the right place at the right time. The strength of the Vatican is that it can remain at the right point for years, decades and even centuries – waiting for the moment when the conflicting parties get tired and begin to look for a way out. Fundamentally, Cardinal Zuppi's mission is not to force negotiations and peace right now. His mission is a statement for the future, no matter how distant it may be – even if neither Matteo Zuppi nor Pope Francis lives to see that moment, someone will definitely pick up the baton and the Vatican will have a good chance to save the world once again. For the benefit of the world and to the greater glory of the church.
What cannot be taken away from the Catholic Church is the ability to look into the future. Believing in God and that he remains your constant ally (no matter what you do) allows you to have a truly unlimited planning horizon.
We need the Pope
For Russia, the Vatican is primarily an influence on the Global South. Where people love the Pope, honor him, believe his every word and often see the world through his eyes. Moreover, don’t let the word “south” deceive you. Of course, the South includes Africa, Asia, and Latin America (that’s quite a lot, right?). But the “South” – if not geographical, then ideological – it begins in Europe. In much of Italy and Spain, for example, the Vatican carries enormous ideological weight. Just like the Russian narrative about “Western neo-imperialism” or that behind any upheavals in the world there are necessarily the interests of the United States of America.
The support of the Pope – whatever it may be expressed in – allows one of the parties to the conflict to use at least part of his authority in their favor. With all the hostility towards Russia, where Putin rules, one cannot fail to note the Kremlin’s ability and willingness to influence the minds of a wide variety of people in various regions of the planet. Kremlin politicians influence a wide range of populations, from European universities – the heart of Western culture – to influencing people in mining villages in equatorial Africa. The Kremlin expects that the Global North will fall into crisis, and the positions of the Global South will naturally strengthen against this background. Or rather, the voices of those who will speak on behalf of the Global South will be strengthened.
So the alliance with the Pope and the resources of the Catholic Church are a prize for which one can practice flexibility. In the end, just like in the Vatican, in Moscow they know very well that you can “talk about peace” forever, and this does not oblige you to anything. So Lavrov, having announced his openness to the peace initiatives proposed by the Pope, immediately noted that “the ball is in the Ukrainian side.” I wonder if he even realized how ambiguous that sounded?
The Vatican had to work a little to get Moscow's attention. The “Vatican U-turn” happened after two interesting visits – Pope Francis to Mongolia and Cardinal Zuppi to China. We can say that the Vatican has bypassed the Russian Federation from the rear. And not only geographically. Judging by the fact that after Zuppi’s visit, China adjusted its public position regarding a “fair peaceful solution for Ukraine.”
But the efforts were rewarded. In Moscow they ultimately decided that “the Pope is needed.” The changes in Moscow's rhetoric about the Vatican's peace mission are incredible and very drastic. Until recently, the official Kremlin speaker Peskov was confused about what the papal "dove of peace" Zuppi needed in Moscow. And today, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov states that the Russian side fully supports the Vatican’s peace mission, looks forward to new meetings with Cardinal Zuppi and sincerely believes that a new meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will also happen soon. The representatives of the Russian News Agency TASS confidentially tells the public that the Vatican “highly appreciates” Russia’s readiness to negotiate. And the new ambassador to the Vatican is a person with a reputation as either a high-ranking spy, or “the dean of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MFA Russia)” – in general, a very trusted person.
Since “a just peace for Ukraine” is not at all included in the Kremlin’s plans, the main argument with which Pope Francis will be lured into an alliance with Russia will most likely be the possibility of a new meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow.
The Patriarch will once again have to close his eyes and ears to protests in his own church, and agree to a meeting with the pontiff. The Russian Orthodox Church is desperately criticizing the very possibility of this meeting. And not only because “ecumenism is a heresy” from the point of view of radical conservatives, who have greatly strengthened their positions in Russian society (and the Russian Orthodox Church) against the backdrop of the war with Ukraine. It is becoming too obvious that the Pope influences the Russian political agenda much more than the Patriarch of Moscow. And not so much because the pontiff in himself is a powerful figure, but because the Patriarch of Moscow is no longer at all a strong authoritative figure. For those who are worried about the fate of the Russian Orthodox Church, this is, of course, very unpleasant to see and realize. But Putin has no other patriarch for them. That's all for now.
Isn't there a need for a Pope?
To the reasons listed above why Russia decided to pay attention to the peace initiative proposed by the Pope, undoubtedly, one more important reason should be added, namely the position of Ukraine. The negative attitude of Ukrainians towards Pope Francis is expressed not only in the results of opinion polls, but also in the statements of officials.
It's not that we don't have reason to be offended by Pope Francis. All our complaints against him would not fit even on a newspaper page. But emotions are emotions, and politics, and especially diplomacy, in theory, in any situation should remain as pragmatic as possible.
But this concept does not seem to have been taken into account by political leaders during the formation of our current government. Ukrainian politicians are attuned to the waves of popular emotions – they sway on these waves in the hope of soaring higher. And whenever possible, politicians increase the amplitude of fluctuations. I cannot explain Mykhailo Podoliak’s speech that “the Pope stands for the interests of the Kremlin” with anything other than a desire to hype. In addition, Podoliak claims that Moscow bribed the Pope with deposits in the Vatican Bank. I am sure that neither Podoliak personally nor the entire presidential office will have enough evidence that the Pope was bribed. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government reports through Podoliak that it refuses to deal with the Pope and his peace initiatives, explaining this only by the fact that the Pope is allegedly a supporter of Russia.
I don’t know exactly what considerations actually force the Office of the President of Ukraine to refuse the Vatican’s mediation services. But two points are important here – the fact of refusal itself, and the fact that this refusal was expressed in an offensive tone. In addition, it is important that this refusal is justified by one single consideration, namely, the Pope is a supporter of Moscow.
As a result, we are witnessing a completely absurd situation: Ukraine, a country with a huge number of Catholics, is losing the diplomatic struggle for the Holy See to Russia, a country with a very modest Catholic presence and colossal internal opposition to Catholicism.
But if Ukraine decided to abandon the peace initiative proposed by Pope Francis and refuse dialogue with the Vatican, this opens up many opportunities for Moscow. Now the Kremlin can do what it loves, namely talk about Ukraine without the participation of Ukraine itself in this conversation. And explain the lack of progress in peace initiatives by saying that Ukraine does not want to participate in the negotiations. Even with the participation of the most independent mediator, namely the Pope. At the same time, Russia itself can continue to develop its relations with the Holy See with the double benefit of spreading its influence in the Global South and influencing the cessation of the dialogue between the Holy See and Ukraine, which does not sit at the same table with its adherents of the Russian Federation.
Thus, Ukraine is losing the diplomatic battle to Russia without even joining it – failure to show up for the battle equals defeat.
Alas, “failure to show up for battle” has recently become a special Ukrainian trend, not only in the matter of the church, but in a variety of areas. Ukrainians refuse to play not only on the same field with the Russians, but also with those who support the Russians and even with those who are hesitant: to support the Russians or start supporting the Ukrainian side. Our circle of communication is dangerously narrowing to those who, instead of saying “good morning,” give correct answers to the questions “who owns the Crimean Peninsula?” and “who is the aggressor.”
We are victims of war, we fight heroically and suffer losses, we defend ourselves and the world, and yes, we have a certain right to stand in a pathetic pose and demand special treatment. But how effective is this tactic of behavior from a diplomatic point of view? It is worth considering that by behaving in this way we will not win friends, we will not win over those who are hesitant to our side, we will not convince someone who does not have sympathy for us that our enemy should not become his friend. To be heard, you need to speak. Both in the presence of Russians and in their absence. Even if the interlocutor hesitates with answers to the “main questions.” Even more so if he hesitates.