To See the Obvious, or Who Is Barking at Whose Door
During the last few months of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis has repeatedly made assessments of the war-related events, which were ambiguously perceived by Ukrainian society. For a long time, Russian aggression against Ukraine was called a conflict. And even when the word "war" was used, it was often while adding the adjective "fratricidal".
In mid-May, the Pope had a meeting with the editors-in-chief of Jesuit magazines (information about the meeting was published only on June 18). The pontiff once again voiced his thoughts on the causes of the war, which provoked outrage, especially in the Ukrainian environment, as those thoughts resonate with Russian narratives. However, they do not correspond to the truth millions of Ukrainians and others worldwide see.
Information worldview of world-class figures such as the pontiff is primarily formed by the environment, the people they communicate with, and those responsible for the Vatican's information policy and foreign relations.
Even in the conversation with Jesuit publishers, Pope Francis, in particular, says that a few months before the war, he met with a head of state, "a man who speaks little but is very wise." He told him he was concerned about NATO's moves. Why? Because "they are barking at Russia's door and do not understand that the Russians are imperialists and will not allow any foreign power to approach them." He added: "The situation could lead to war." "Such was his opinion, and on February 24, the war began. This head of state was able to read the signs of what was happening," the official website of the Vatican quoted the Holy Father.
Therefore, to understand what statements should be expected from the pontiff, one must know the views that prevail in the Vatican. Of course, it is also important to know who shapes those views. The second is a separate topic that would be good to cover, which can best be done by those familiar with Vatican insiders and the decision-making system. As for the first question, two well-known Vatican publicists help us to understand it.
"Why is it so difficult to understand what the Vatican thinks about Ukraine?" Wrote the famous American Vatican expert John Allen, whose article was published on May 18 on the Crux website. "The war in Ukraine has been going on for three months, yet many things about this conflict remain unclear. Perhaps the main one is its outcome for Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the Catholic point of view, during these three months, it remains largely unclear how Pope Francis and his Vatican team view the situation."
"Obviously, the Vatican is against war as it always opposes using force in resolving international disputes. He also advocates the creation of humanitarian corridors so that civilians can flee hostilities and supports the policy of accepting refugees fleeing the conflict," said Allen. At the same time, he asks six questions about unclear critical moments.
The Italian Vatican expert Luigi Accattoli answers those questions. "I have no definitive answers nor the immodesty to claim that I have them. However, some answers seem clear, which leads me to say that the Vatican's position is by no means unknown to those who do not seek support for one or another warring party from the Pope or his staff," he writes.
Accattoli makes it clear that he conveys the views that, in his opinion, prevail in the Vatican. We are particularly concerned that many of them resonate with the clichés of Russian propaganda. All these points of argument are untrue from the Ukrainians' perspective, and many heads of state and authoritative international institutions or resources have refuted and continue to refute them.
In this article, we want to comment on Luigi Accattoli's answers to the six questions posed by John Allen. We do not claim our views to be the absolute truth, but they cover our perspective on the situation. Since we see the situation closely and in dynamics, we believe our perspective on these things to be closer to the truth.
So, the text is structured this way: first goes a question formulated by John Allen, then Luigi Accattoli's answer, followed by our comment.
1. Who Is to Blame?
- Who does the Vatican hold responsible for the conflict? Do they acknowledge the conflict being based on Russia's legitimate concerns about its security, or do they see it as a substantially unwarranted war of aggression? (D. Allen)
- They recognize Russia's "legitimate aspirations" for security and the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. On the first day of the invasion, February 24, Cardinal Parolin called on the parties to make decisions that "protect everyone's legitimate aspirations." The Pope's reference to the implementation of the Minsk agreements during his meeting with Putin on June 10, 2015, already testified to this double recognition. Thus, the Vatican acknowledges Russia's aggression and invasion (the Pope and his followers have repeatedly used these words). However, they believe a provocation occurred both because of NATO's "barking" and neglecting the Minsk agreement. (L. Accattoli)
… Once, a criminal was asked, "why did you kill an innocent man?" He replied that the victim refused to give him his belongings and money. This is roughly what Putin's argument sounds like. By the way, this story about a criminal is from journalistic material about the crime that took place in Russia…
Legitimate aspirations for one’s safety
This argument can be valid only when taking one of the postulates of Russian propaganda as a basis - NATO is an aggressive bloc threatening Russia. We see NATO as a defence alliance, and the reason for creating it was "the USSR barking at Europe's door." If we consider NATO as an aggressive bloc, then the following question arises: why did the countries of the former Warsaw Pact (Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland), as well as some former Soviet republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), seek place under NATO security umbrella immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Why are Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova so eager to join? Russia's "barking at our countries' door" encourages us to seek the protection of NATO; we understand that Russia wants to absorb us, and we cannot fight it alone.
Why does Russia regard NATO as an "aggressive bloc"? Kremlin propaganda explains this to domestic Russian consumers by saying that "the collective West wants to conquer Russia and seize its resources." However, we understand that the Kremlin wishes to restore the USSR or even the Russian Empire, and its primary goal is territorial expansion.
In his recent video address, the Head of the UGCC, Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), clearly stated his position on the causes of the war (one most Ukrainians would agree with). "Today, we see the attempts to deceive the whole world while indulging in wishful thinking. Like no one else, we see and know that Russia's aggression against Ukraine is unprovoked. Anyone who thinks some external cause has provoked Russia into military aggression is either a victim of Kremlin propaganda or deliberately deceives the world… Unfortunately, the causes of this war lie in Russia itself. The Russian aggressors are trying to solve internal problems with the help of external aggression, projecting their ailments on others and blaming the whole world."
The Vatican media must have already realized something is wrong with their messages. In a recent telephone interview, Fr. Antonio Spadaro commented on the Pope's words about "NATO's barking at Russia's door" that could provoke Russia to invade. He said it was the Pope's thoughts on the words of the head of a European state. However, he believes that the Pope did not mean the aggressiveness of NATO (#Forrest RADIO1 RAI).
Russian-speaking population in Ukraine
Yes, in Ukraine, a significant number of people are Russian-speaking (the Centre for Social Monitoring: 48.4% of the people of Ukraine speak Ukrainian at home, 27.3% speak Russian at home, 23.9% use two languages), especially in the east and south and particularly in the cities. Such is a consequence of the colonial past: being part of the Russian Empire and the USSR, which in many ways fought the use of the Ukrainian language and culture, and promoted aggressive Russification. However, the dynamics show that more and more Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, especially in the context of the war, prefer to use the Ukrainian language. Yet, within the framework of the "Russian world" concept, Russian propaganda claims that all Russian-speaking people (and not only in Ukraine) belong to this "Russian world". The propaganda also claims that they are being persecuted in Ukraine. Therefore, protecting these people is one of Russia's priorities. This also leads to the conclusion that all Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens support Putin and Russia. However, presenting a few facts is enough to refute this statement.
First: after Russia's covert invasion of Crimea and Donbas (they wanted to capture the entirety of it but failed and Ukraine regained control over some of the seized territories), you can compare life in the occupied and unoccupied cities of Donbas and in particular, those that were eventually returned. The population there is primarily Russian-speaking. Cities in the unoccupied territories of Donbas continued to live a peaceful, quiet life (Mariupol, Severodonetsk, etc.), while in the occupied parts, a curfew was imposed, and the arbitrariness of secret services and lawlessness towards ordinary people prevailed. Many crimes, such as robbery, violence, killing civilians, and others, which were later repeated in Irpin, Bucha and many other cities, took place in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but the world did not know about them as much at the time. The second is the resistance of the population of the South and East to Putin's full-scale aggression, which Russia certainly did not expect.
By the way, there are many Russian-speaking people in the EU. They also complain about their language rights being limited at times. Draw your own conclusions…
Disregarding Minsk agreements
As for the "Minsk agreements", two things should be noted: the first is that the Ukrainian side signed these agreements "at gunpoint," i.e. under Russia's pressure, as its mercenaries, together with part of the regular troops, invaded the two eastern regions of Ukraine. Second, the most heated discussions between Ukraine and Russia were about their interpretation and the order of steps in their implementation. Ukraine argued the need for a ceasefire, mutual withdrawal of troops from the line of contact, withdrawal of Russian servicemen from the territory of Ukraine (many facts proved their presence, but the Russian Federation never acknowledged it), restoration of Ukraine's control over its border, and elections, which was supported by the international community. Russia argued that elections should be held first. Therefore, the Russian Federation has constantly accused Ukraine of failing to comply with the Minsk agreements.
In addition, Ukraine began to implement some of the agreements, such as a ceasefire (while shelling from the enemy never stopped) and the withdrawal of troops from the line of contact (military units of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions immediately entered the territory left by Ukrainian troops).
An interesting remark
Interestingly, the Russian Federation voices other reasons for the invasion (not NATO aggression, concern for the Russian-speaking population or neglect of the Minsk agreements), which it insistently presents to its domestic consumers as a "special military operation". It claims the following: after the 2014 coup, the Nazis seized power in Ukraine, working to build anti-Russia; Ukraine was going to attack Russia a few years later, and this "operation" was a pre-emptive strike to avoid Ukraine's attack and "denazify" and "demilitarize" Ukraine. The latter is presented (the first one is almost never mentioned) as the main objective of the "special operation".
This is contrary to the truth but very close to what Nazi propaganda conveyed while justifying Hitler's aggressive plans.
The conflict itself
Considering this war as a temporary conflict of interest between modern Ukraine and Russia is a grave mistake. In fact, this has been an ongoing conflict of varying intensity since the 17th century. It is a fact that Russia has appropriated our secular and ecclesiastical history. It made it its own, and we will be convincing the world for a long time that we are not Russians, that we are a different, separate people who live on their land and have the right to determine their own path. At the same time, the world is accustomed to reading the history of Ukraine and Russia in Russian interpretation.
Russian propaganda has long portrayed Putin's policies as an attempt to revive the Soviet Union. The existence of an independent Ukraine is a major obstacle in this regard. Taking this into account, all the reasons for the aggression voiced by the occupier are mere window dressing. In reality, it is about the liquidation of Ukraine's independence and the genocide of its people, as we see from the occupiers' actions.
2. Aggressive Sanctions
- Does the Vatican support the aggressive economic sanctions imposed on Russia by most Western countries? (D. Allen)
- No. They consider them legitimate as a tool for applying sanctions against aggression and invasion, that is, against the delegitimization of international law that came with Russia’s invasion. They are legitimate, but at the same time, they herald dire bilateral and global consequences that will last over time if not accompanied by adequate peace initiatives that can be acceptable to both parties. Therefore, they are legitimate in the current state of necessity, but they must be overcome as soon as possible. (L. Accattoli)
Adequate peace initiatives acceptable to both parties
During the war, there have been many peace initiatives by Western Europe and the United States: The Quadripartite Commission, Western politicians' pre-war visits to Putin, the Turkish President's initiatives, constant contact with Putin by President Macron and Prime Minister Scholz, and before that - Merkel, attempts at negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian sides. None of them was accepted by Putin, who considers total surrender Ukraine's only option.
Regarding the coordinate system
As for Mr Accattoli's answers, we see that they are based on one methodological error, namely the wrong coordinate system. He speaks of "two sides of the conflict", so one can imagine these two sides are equally responsible for these events. In fact, it is a coordinate system where one country launches a full-scale military INVASION into ANOTHER INDEPENDENT STATE, accompanied by the destruction of civilian infrastructure and brutal violence against civilians. In addition, this invasion is UNMOTIVATED, while the respected Luigi Accattoli does not consider it such and sees "legitimate reasons" for Putin's actions. Yet there are no "two sides", only the "aggressor" and the "victim", who has the right to legitimate resistance and to be assisted in this resistance.
Let us consider a different coordinate system stating that there is the invader and the victim, unprovoked aggression on the invader's part, and no legitimate desire. How can we talk about solutions acceptable to both parties if, by definition, the victim will have to make concessions to the detriment of their interests, and the aggressor will only have to give up part of their aggressive plans?
They are legitimate, but they must be overcome as soon as possible
In this case, we are talking about one general trend: returning to business as usual as soon as possible. Thus, it gives Russia a chance to change the picture on the desktop, replace the odious Putin with someone less stained with blood and corruption (a seemingly pro-democracy character), and many Western politicians and businessmen will be ready to return to pre-war positions as if nothing happened. We believe that such superficial steps will lead to repeated aggression in a few years once Russia restores its economic and military potential. This is also true for the church sphere. As UCU Vice-Rector Myroslav Marynovych points out, replacing the odious Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) with someone like Hilarion (Alfeev) may be perceived by the world Christianity as an acceptable condition for returning to the pre-war state of affairs - dialogue as usual.
We believe Russia must go through a period of "denazification" (derashization). It must admit to being guilty of the enormous damage done to Ukraine. It must go through the process of repentance. We believe that the economic damage caused by the war must be compensated. We believe this process should be similar to what Germany experienced after World War II. This also applies to the Russian Orthodox Church as an accomplice to aggression and a spiritual ideologue of the "Russian world".
3. What Kirill Says
- Does the Vatican agree with the thesis of the Russian Orthodox Church that Putin is a defender of traditional Christian values at home and abroad? (D. Allen)
- No. They are interested in understanding the Christian soul of the Russian people and the way it can manifest today in the domestic and international politics of the modern state. They see both positive and negative elements in these manifestations, but no more than in other political movements or state systems with a conservative orientation present in Christian tradition countries. (L. Accattoli)
Kirill's former closest associates say he used to support liberalism. However, feeling the Russian government's situation and society's demand for conservatism, he became an ardent supporter of conservative views. It is he who developed the ideological concept of the "Russian world", which he then presented to Putin as the basis for statehood. And thus, whether he can be considered a sincere supporter of the Christian conservative trend - is an open-ended question.
Since he actually blessed the Russian soldiers for the war against Ukraine, calling the savage barbarism of the Russian occupiers a result of "Orthodox upbringing" and gave the war "spiritual justification", he finally compromised himself, showing that the Church in Russia is merely one of the state departments and the successor of its aggressive policy. Therefore, he can be considered a religious leader no longer.
We also want to draw attention to the fact that prominent theologians of the world, primarily the Orthodox, have dubbed the "Russian world" ideology as an ethnic-phyletic heresy, threatening Orthodox doctrines. Thus, Patriarch Kirill, the primary bearer of this ideology, is called a heretic. Former clergy and laity of the Moscow Patriarchate appealed to the Orthodox patriarchs to condemn the actions and views of the head of the ROC as heretical.
That is why we do not accept the pontiff's persistent fervent wish to meet with Patriarch Kirill, as we do not accept "dialogue at any cost," as Myroslav Marynovych put it. We agree with George Weigel, who says that "the meeting of the current Bishop of Rome and the current Patriarch of Moscow would not be two religious leaders’ meeting. It would be a meeting of a religious leader and an instrument of Russian state power."
4. Weapon Supplies to Kyiv
- Does the Vatican support attempts to arm Ukraine as a legitimate expression of the right to self-defence, recognized by Catholic social doctrine, or does it consider the supply of weapons to Ukraine as part of escalating the conflict? (D. Allen)
- They do not support these efforts. Albeit reluctant, they consider it a legitimate choice to provide weapons to those under attack, given the state of necessity mentioned above. However, they do not agree with this choice, considering it a source of escalation as long as peace initiatives do not accompany it. Those initiatives should be acceptable to both parties and conducted with the same dedication as weapons supplies are.
This position is often met with disapproval, even more so than the sanctions: the latter are lethal in the long run, especially in the context of the food crisis they are causing in poor countries; the weapons kill immediately, so it is even worse. The two initiatives, sanctions and weapons, are legitimized by the state of emergency, but they are not instruments of peace. (L. Accattoli)
Ukraine is much smaller than Russia in terms of territory and population. The same goes for its army and armaments. In addition, Russia has long been preparing for such a war, so it has invested heavily in the modernization of weapons (fortunately, many of these funds were stolen) and, as its representatives stated, has the second strongest army in the world. Ukraine, taught by the bitter experience of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the attack on Donbas, has also modernized its armaments, but not to the same extent as Russia. Thus, from the very beginning, our forces were and remain unequal in terms of human resources, armaments, and finances. Our main weapons are the motivation and heroism of our army, who defend their land and people, and the support they draw from the citizens of Ukraine. The countries that see Ukraine's critical situation and the unwarranted aggression on the part of the Russian Federation have decided to help us with funds and weapons to increase Ukraine's chances of surviving this war. They also clearly understand the Kremlin's appetites and have good reason to suspect that defending Ukraine is also protecting themselves. To oppose the provision of weapons to Ukraine in these circumstances is to condemn it to political death when Ukraine disappears as a state and will turn into one big "Bucha". And the ferocious Russian soldiers will get even closer to the borders of the EU and NATO, considering them the next goal, as Russian politicians argue. Therefore, we consider this position very cynical and short-sighted.
Source of escalation
Yes, many politicians and ordinary people now fear that if Putin does not win the conventional war, he could use nuclear weapons (tactical or strategic), which he and his allies, as well as television propagandists, scare the world with. Putin has successfully used this blackmail for many years, bargaining for significant concessions from the collective West.
In that case, we must recognize that in today's world, countries with nuclear weapons can dictate their will to those who do not have them. If one is to get blackmailed into submission, Ukraine has no chance, like many other countries that also do not have these weapons.
In general, the world's institutions, which have taken on security functions, have long wondered: are they ready to make concessions to the world's biggest terrorist, scaring everyone with nuclear weapons on a whim?
5. Reconsidering the Borders?
- Would the Vatican approve of Ukraine giving up control of Donbas or other parts of Eastern Ukraine with a Russian-speaking population to end the war, or does it see it as a prelude to further conflict? (D. Allen)
- Like any other third party, the Vatican cannot interfere in operational decisions, which both parties should seek and evaluate. Yet the global agreement required to end the conflict may also have room for some border reconsideration, possibly with the guarantee (and international support) against any other territorial claims. (L. Accattoli)
In our opinion, this is one of the main mistakes often repeated by some Western European and American politicians: the attempt to appease the aggressor by making concessions to him. We can mention the historical precedent of the Munich Agreement with Hitler when he was given the Sudetenland in hopes that it would calm him down and prevent further aggression. And we all know what happened next! Concessions only whet the aggressor's appetite, and Putin takes after Hitler, imitating him step by step.
As for international guarantees that Putin will not try to seize more territory: Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, receiving guarantees of territorial integrity in exchange for the renunciation of nuclear weapons. This was guaranteed by the United States, Britain and Russia. What does this document mean now? Nothing.
We are sure that Putin will not stop there, as he did not stop at the annexation of Crimea, part of Donbas, as before Abkhazia and North Ossetia. He aims to restore the Soviet Union within its borders or even those of the Russian Empire, including Finland and part of Poland. He sees himself as a successor to the policy of "land acquisition" of Peter I. However, it seems that many world politicians have understood this and are trying to end this revisionist policy. As can be seen from this publication, this is not yet clear to everyone, and there is a danger of repeating this mistake. We believe that if we make concessions to Putin and allow him to secure the already occupied territories, after a few years, Putin (or his successor) will accumulate financial resources, restore the army, increase its numbers, consider the mistakes of this campaign… and launch another invasion. No one knows where he will stop next time.
6. NATO's Barking
- What does the Vatican think about NATO expansion, particularly the request for immediate membership from Finland and Sweden? (D. Allen)
- NATO expansion reinforces and extends what the Pope called and denied as provocative "barking at Russia's door." The deployment of NATO bases in new territories can be even more provocative. The security framework that will be offered to Russia should include an agreement on the following issue: new countries can join NATO, but Russia must be guaranteed an adequate range of respect for military facilities. (L. Accattoli)
Yes, one can afford to criticize NATO while living in a country surrounded by the bloc's members and thus enjoying guaranteed protection without any investments (i.e. without having one's own divisions, full-fledged troops, military equipment, and air defence systems).
The answer to Accattoli's argument was partially provided in the first paragraph. The unprecedented urgency of Sweden and Finland (which previously maintained neutrality for many years) to join NATO confirms the thesis expressed in the first paragraph. They are motivated by "Russia barking at their doors" as they see what happened to Ukraine. We would like to remind you that in 2008 Ukraine applied for NATO membership simultaneously with Georgia, and there was a prospect at the NATO Summit in Bucharest to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a "Membership Action Plan". If they had been supported then, Ukraine would probably have become a member of NATO and today's war (as well as the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas) would not have come to pass, and Georgia would not have been torn apart.
Yet the most interesting thing is that Putin said he doesn't see the accession of Finland and Sweden as a problem. Thus, we can conclude that Russia opposes the accession of Ukraine (and Georgia, too) to NATO so adamantly because it had and still has plans for their complete conquest. This here is a supplement to the first question.
In the face of this conflict, the Pope and his staff preach peace, condemning Russia's acts of aggression. However, they strongly disapprove of the response with sanctions and arms supplies, which may be necessary to end this aggression immediately while not being the instruments of peace.
Therefore, they would have the international community make a strong proposal, a call to negotiating, including, so to speak, a conference on security in Europe, which would put the Ukrainian issue in a broader context of maintaining peace on the continent and the planet. (L. Accattoli)
We fully support this position. We support the idea of peace talks, but not at the cost of concessions to the aggressor or the expense of territorial or political compromises on the part of Ukraine.
Being the Apostolic Capital, Ukrainians do not want the Vatican giving political and diplomatic assessments of the war in Ukraine in the spirit of discredited Ostpolitik and blurred postmodernist concepts of good and evil. They expect them to assess the situation per the words and actions of Christ, to see and speak the truth, and to condemn the aggressor's hypocrisy.