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Pope urges Ukraine to raise the white flag, sparking controversy

The Pope’s ambiguous statements on the conflict, often failing to clearly identify Russia as the aggressor, have led some to question the Vatican’s understanding of the situation in Ukraine.
Pope Francis Ukraine negotiations with Russia
Pope Francis has called on Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. Screenshot from RSI
Pope urges Ukraine to raise the white flag, sparking controversy

In an interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI, Pope Francis has essentially called on Ukraine to hang out the white flag by starting negotiations with Russia.

His interview continues a pattern of ambiguous statements on Ukraine criticized for not clearly stating that Russia is the aggressor, as Ukrainian officials rebuke negotiation prospects with “habitual liar Putin.”

“I believe that those who see the situation, those who think about the people, those who have the courage to raise the white flag and to negotiate are stronger. And today it can be negotiated with the help of international powers. The word negotiate is a courageous word. When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you need to have the courage to negotiate. You are ashamed, but with how many deaths will it end? Negotiate in time, look for some country to act as a mediator,” he told RSI.

He suggested that international powers could assist in the negotiation process, and mentioned Türkiye as a potential mediator.

“Negotiating is never a surrender. It is the courage not to lead the country to suicide,” the Pope said, referring to the suffering of Ukrainians throughout history, particularly under Stalin’s rule.

When asked if he himself had offered to negotiate, Pope Francis simply replied, “I am here, period.”

Update: The Vatican has clarified Pope Francis’ recent comments on Ukraine, in which he called for the country to “raise the white flag” and negotiate with Russia. Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See Press Office, explained that the Pope used the term “white flag” to indicate a cessation of hostilities and a truce reached through the courage of negotiation. The Pope’s hope for Ukraine, expressed in his Angelus prayer on 25 February, is to create “conditions for a diplomatic solution in search of a just and lasting peace.”

“Elsewhere in the interview, speaking of another conflict situation, but referring to every war situation, the Pope clearly stated: ‘Negotiation is never a surrender’,” Matteo Bruni said.

Pope Francis’ mixed statements on Ukraine

Recognition of Aggression. In November 2022, Pope Francis recognized Russia as the aggressor in the war against Ukraine, calling the Ukrainian people “martyrs” facing the “cruelty” of Russian troops.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis has also faced criticism for his perceived ambiguity regarding the conflict. He has been accused of not explicitly condemning Russia as the aggressor and for suggesting that all parties share blame by issuing appeals for peace, urging all parties involved in the conflict to engage in negotiations and good will.

The Pope has offered to be a mediator in such negotiations early on in Russia’s invasion.

Early in the invasion, the Pope visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See, a move that deviated from standard protocol, to express his concern about the conflict.

On 2 October 2022, he called for a ceasefire and negotiations in the Russo-Ukrainian war, dedicating his entire Angelus address to Ukraine. In November, he offered to be a mediator and stated that the Vatican appreciates any glimpse that could lead to a real ceasefire and real negotiations.

In June 2023, the Pope sent Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi to Ukraine to explore potential paths to peace and discuss prospects with the government in Kyiv

In August 2023, the Pope faced backlash from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for his controversial remarks that praised “great Russia” in a speech, which was seen as spreading Russian imperial ideas. The Vatican later removed the controversial quote from its website.
Pope Francis called for an international day of prayer for peace and prayer in Ukraine on 26 January 2024, expressing concern over the escalating tensions and the potential for conflict in the region.

Pope “perpetually fails Ukraine”

According to religious scholar Regina Elsner, Pope Francis habitually fails Ukraine in his statements and actions for several reasons.

  1. Firstly, the Vatican lacks expertise on Eastern Europe beyond Russia and is unaware of the anti-ecumenical currents within the Russian Orthodox Church, which undermines the Pope’s authority as a mediator.
  2. Secondly, the Vatican has prioritized its alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church in defending conservative Christian values against liberalism, leading to a failure to denounce the “Russian world” ideology that legitimizes the war.
  3. Lastly, the Vatican is ignorant of the functionality of Russian propaganda, and by claiming neutrality and suggesting both sides share blame, it inadvertently contributes to the myths propagated by Russia, demonstrating a misinterpretation of the situation in Ukraine.

Three reasons why Pope Francis perpetually fails Ukraine

Reasons against negotiations with Russia

Pressure on Ukraine to enter negotiations with Russia have grown following its failed 2023 counteroffensive, which stumbled amid Russian fortifications, minefields, and a barrage of drones.

However, Putin has no intention of negotiating in good faith with Ukraine and is instead trying to convince the West to “betray Ukraine through negotiations,” the Institute for Study of War has assessed.

According to military analyst Hans Petter Midttun, negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are a bad idea for several reasons.

  1. Russia has consistently demonstrated that it sees negotiations merely as a tool to influence Western decision-makers, media, and public opinion to secure a Russian victory, rather than genuinely seeking peace.
  2. The war is fundamental, with Ukraine fighting for its right to exist and Russia pursuing its Great Power ambitions, making compromise impossible.
  3. Over 200 rounds of negotiations and 20 ceasefire agreements since 2014 have failed to prevent the full-scale invasion, proving that Russia cannot be trusted to honor any peace agreement.
  4. Russia’s deeply rooted belief that Ukraine has no independent identity or basis for statehood means that it is not genuinely negotiating with Ukraine, but rather seeking its surrender.
  5. Any temporary peace agreement would be advantageous to Russia, allowing it to regroup and prepare for the next assault, while economically and militarily exhausting Ukraine.

Therefore, he concludes that peace can only be restored through resolve and military power, not negotiations.

9 reasons negotiations with Russia are utterly pointless

Ukraine’s peace formula vs. Russia’s capitulation demands

Over the two years of the all-out war, Russia has consistently restated its maximalist goals in Ukraine, effectively demanding Ukraine’s capitulation. In January 2024, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov restated Russia’s uncompromising position on Ukraine, confirming no interest in negotiations with Ukraine or the West, aligning with President Putin’s 2022 address demanding Ukraine’s “demilitarization” and “denazification,” and NATO to halt new member admissions, effectively signaling a call for surrender by Ukraine and the West.

Meanwhile, Ukraine promotes its peace formula, including deoccupation of the entire Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy unveiled Ukraine’s peace formula to end the Russo-Ukrainian war in October 2022. The plan includes the following key points:

  • Ensure nuclear safety at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant;
  • Protect and ensure Ukraine’s grain exports for food security;
  • Ensure safety of Ukraine’s power infrastructure and aid in its restoration;
  • Release all prisoners, including POWs and deported individuals;
  • Restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity;
  • Withdraw Russian troops and restore state borders;
  • Establish a special tribunal for prosecuting war crimes;
  • Focus on demining and restoring water facilities for ecocide prevention;
  • Create a security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space;
  • Confirm the end of the war with a signed document.
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