By Matija Šerić
At the end of 2022, the Russian-Ukrainian war entered a state of stalemate in which neither side can make significant progress in the near future. In sports terms, it’s a tie that will be undecided for a long time because neither side has a solution for a quick victory. Although during the last late summer and fall the Ukrainians managed to make some significant territorial gains in the north of the front in the Kharkiv region and in the south in the Kherson region, the Russian armed forces still have a firm foothold in the south and east of Ukraine. Russian troops have no intention of withdrawing further to the east, and more detailed analyzes show that the aforementioned Ukrainian gains are partly the result of Russian tactics of retreating to safer and more easily defendable positions.
Lately, however, the war wheel of fortune has turned to the Russian side. Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid have proven to be very successful as they cut off electricity, water supply and other public services across the country. They are an indicator of how right those analysts were who claimed that Russia held back in carrying out its special military operation until this fall when it “kicked into high gear”. In addition to destructive missiles and drones, the Russians have a handful of other military solutions at their disposal, not even considering nuclear weapons.
For example, at the end of November, 11 Russian ships were spotted on combat duty in the Black Sea, one of which is a Kalibr cruise missile carrier, with a total of eight missiles on board. At the same time, there were two Russian warships on combat duty in the Sea of Azov, with the help of which the Russian Federation continues to control the maritime routes there. There were nine Russian warships in the Mediterranean Sea, including five Kalibr cruise missile carriers with a total of 76 missiles. In addition to all that, there is also weaponry that the Russians possess and have almost never used until now. One of them is aerosol bombs, which have the power of a smaller nuclear bomb and destroy everything in a radius of 1 to 2 km. There is also an arsenal of chemical weapons (war poisons) as well as advanced hypersonic systems. At the same time, NATO lacks more and more weapons and equipment to send to Ukraine. It showed that even NATO has limited resources, which was unimaginable until recently. After all, one should not lose sight of the fact that winter has arrived, which deadens military operations.
Taking into account such a perspective, a perspective according to which the war in Ukraine could last for several more years, negotiations are imposed as the only rational solution to end the war. This is publicly acknowledged by Western statesmen such as French President Emmanuel Macron. In the last slightly more than nine months of the war, many countries tried to impose themselves as peace mediators, the most prominent of which are China, Turkey and Israel. The Vatican with Pope Francis, who is very active in the field of diplomacy, is emerging as a possible successful peace mediator. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Holy See has offered its mediation on many occasions, wanting to be the party that ends the Russian-Ukrainian war, primarily for humanitarian reasons, although Vatican diplomats know that a peace solution includes political ones as well.
On several occasions, Russian representatives, especially Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, welcomed the Vatican’s offer to provide and prepare a platform for peace negotiations. “Of course, we support such political will, but considering the de facto and de iure situation we have on the Ukrainian side, such platforms are not in demand,” Peskov said at the end of November. The Russians have repeatedly accused the Ukrainians of undermining any attempt at peace negotiations, and as an argument they would state that they do not want to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin.
To put it mildly, the initial settings for negotiations are not ideal due to the demands of the interested parties. Official Kyiv rejects any idea of handing over parts of Ukrainian territory to Moscow that were occupied or annexed by the Russians. The West, just like the Ukrainians, views the Russian annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, as illegal, more precisely as an act of imperial theft of territory. As a precondition for negotiations, the Ukrainians want the withdrawal of Russian troops to their positions before February 24 of the current year, i.e. the restoration of territorial integrity. On the other hand, the Russians have no intention of giving up on the annexation of Ukrainian regions and obtaining security guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of the NATO alliance. The question is how to find a compromise?
In mid-November, Pope Francis stated that the Vatican is ready to do absolutely everything to conduct negotiations and stop the war. After all, the pope very often mentions Ukraine in his public appearances, in sermons during mass or in various addresses to the public through the media. He warned on many occasions about the risk of using nuclear weapons and about the possible catastrophic global consequences if someone actually uses them. He publicly asked the Russian leader to stop the “spiral of violence and death”.
In early December, Vatican Secretary of State and Archbishop Paul Gallagher addressed delegates at the 29th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Lódz, Poland. The American, Ukrainian and Russian delegations were present at that council, along with others. By the way, the Holy See is one of the 57 member states of the OSCE. Archbishop Gallagher urged diplomats to prioritize Ukrainian-Russian negotiations despite hostilities. He stated that “dialogue requires sacrifice from everyone”. In his speech, he outlined the diplomatic priorities that should be worked on: establishing peace in the world, ensuring safe migration flows and preventing religious discrimination.
Highlighting the Vatican’s mediating role in the negotiations on the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which gave birth to the OSCE, Archbishop Gallagher said that the aim of the act was “peace, security and justice and the continuous development of friendly relations”. He added that “our disbelief towards Helsinki began long before last February” with the neglect of dialogue between countries “separated by radical differences or irreconcilables of their systems” – dialogue that was the basis for the Helsinki agreements between the USA and the USSR in 1975. Text of the Final of the Helsinki Treaty act obliged member states to guarantee sovereignty and human rights according to the agreed principles “regardless of the political, economic or social systems (of states) as well as their size, geographical location or level of economic development.” Archbishop Gallagher stated that states OSCE betrayed that spirit. “The longer the international community delays responding to its overall responsibilities, the more it will lose credibility. We cannot agree and accept that the law of the stronger prevails”. He added that “even if dialogue seems less glorious than fighting on the battlefield, its results are far more beneficial to each individual side” because they are based on consensus.
The mentioned positions of the first man of the Vatican diplomacy aren’t accidental and aren’t the work of one diplomat, but are actually the official positions of the Holy See. They appeared at a time when Russia and America publicly expressed their interest in negotiations to end the Ukrainian war. President Biden stated that he would meet with Putin “if there really is an interest in him deciding to look for a way to end the war,” while the Kremlin responded that it was open to talks “to ensure our interests.” From the Ukrainian side, it appears that there is not sincere wishes for concrete negotiations. President Volodymyr Zelensky recently announced measures to ensure Ukraine’s “spiritual independence” that would ban churches affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian side responded to that, Patriarch Kirill himself asserted that “Donbass is the first line of defense of the Russian world” which extends “everywhere where people who were raised on the traditions of Orthodoxy and Russian morality live.”
At the end of November, Pope Francis spoke publicly again about the need to stop the war and addressed both Putin and Zelenski. It was not another ordinary address because it contains the outlines of a potential peace plan for Ukraine. “I repeat my appeal for an immediate ceasefire. Let the weapons fall silent and let the conditions be sought for the beginning of negotiations that can lead to solutions that are not imposed by force, but negotiated, just and stable… based on respect for the sacred values of human life, as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country, the rights of minorities,” said the pope in his message.
The Pope’s message can be interpreted as a challenge to the Russian referendums and the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, an opinion accepted by most countries. Furthermore, the pope asked both presidents to stop the violence and be open to talking about peace. “My appeal is first of all addressed to the President of the Russian Federation, asking him to stop, also for the love of his people, this spiral of violence and death. On the other hand … I equally confidently call on the President of Ukraine to be open to serious proposals for peace.” He stated that Ukrainian leaders must be far-sighted to ensure peace, which means they must be ready to make some concessions to Russian representatives.
Since the beginning of the escalation in Ukraine, the latest statements of Pope Francis are the strongest messages in favor of peace and at the same time create a minimum starting point for the start of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations. Generally speaking, although the Vatican as a state and Pope Francis personally have all the time condemned the Russian invasion and shown great concern for the civilians involved in the war, it is also true that the Holy See has never sided with either Russia or Ukraine, always leaving the door open to play a role mediator. The Pope surprised the world when he broke the protocol at the very beginning of the Russian invasion, on February 25 he visited the Russian embassy in the Vatican and spent about 40 minutes there opposing the invasion. It’s unimaginable that the pope goes to visit the embassy of a warring country in time of war. Nevertheless, the pope did it in order to, in the words of the Russian ambassador Alexander Avdeyev, “call for the protection of children, the protection of the sick and the suffering, and the protection of people.”
It would not be the first time that the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Francis was engaged as a peace mediator. Although the mediation of the Holy See was secret, on December 17, 2014, the news resounded spectacularly when Cuban leader Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced the beginning of the normalization of relations. Pope Francis played a key role in the reconciliation of Americans and Cubans. This was well illustrated by the headline “Bridge to Cuba via the Vatican” in the American newspaper The Los Angeles Times. “In a rare and crucial role, Francis helped keep US negotiations with Havana on track and steered the final deal.” The Vatican’s role, along with Canada, was crucial in thawing more than half a century of chilly US-Cuban relations. Also, in recent years, the Vatican has been a key factor in preserving peace in crisis-stricken Venezuela, which is also a grandiose diplomatic success. The Holy See has positioned itself as an important intermediary between the Chavista government led by Nicolás Maduro and the united opposition. Although the political crisis in Venezuela has not ended, it seems that peace has been preserved and the dark forms of war are no longer likely.
Quite successful Vatican diplomatic initiatives for peace include Pope Francis’ engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the relationship with unstable Bosnia and Herzegovina. In all these crisis hotspots, the pope maintained a neutral position, leaving the politicians to find adequate solutions, but he still recognized the existence of the State of Palestine or the right to equality of the three constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Taking into account all these successful peace initiatives, there is no doubt that the Holy See could be the key mediator who could organize a platform for peace, whether public or secret, which could bring significant benefits first to ordinary people affected by the war, and then to the countries of Ukraine and Russia. Stopping the war clashes would bring normalization and ease of life for both Ukrainians and Russians. This is actually an easier goal to achieve than solving the political “Ukrainian puzzle”. Whoever solves the geopolitical issue of Ukraine will deserve all the awards. Pope Francis may not have to come up with a concrete political remedy for Ukraine, but he can provide a platform for bright minds to come up with sustainable solutions.