Pope Francis made an impassioned plea for peace during his Angelus address on Sunday. Speaking directly to the leaders of Russia and Ukraine, the pope’s plea for peace came after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions, and his threat to deploy nuclear weapons.
During his address, Francis made a “confident appeal to the President of Ukraine to be open to serious proposals for peace.”
But that plea left some observers - and many Ukrainians - asking: Are there serious proposals on offer in Ukraine?
And if there are, how much moral weight does Pope Francis have to throw behind them?
“The world is learning the geography of Ukraine through names such as Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Izium, Zaparizhzhia and other areas, which have become places of indescribable suffering and fear,” Francis said Sunday.
“And what about the fact that humanity is once again faced with the atomic threat? It is absurd.”
The pope’s lament for the “rivers of blood and tears” shed in Ukraine came after Putin’s annexation Friday of the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, with Francis “deploring” the “further actions contrary to the principles of international law.”
“It increases the risk of nuclear escalation, giving rise to fears of uncontrollable and catastrophic consequences worldwide,” he said. “My appeal is addressed first and foremost to the President of the Russian Federation, imploring him to stop this spiral of violence and death, also for the sake of his own people.”
Following the announcement of the Russian annexations, which were conducted under the pretense of local referenda and treaty signings, Putin has insisted that the Ukrainian regions are now sovereign Russian territory and could be “defended” by any means necessary, even as Ukrainian forces continue to advance through the occupied areas.
At the same time, the Russian president issued a call to “the Kyiv regime to immediately cease-fire and all military action,” and “to return to the negotiating table.”
Some analysts, and members of Putin’s own military, have talked up the real possibility of nuclear weapons being used, but many have interpreted the Russian president’s statements as an attempt to force Ukraine to cede the annexed regions — some 15% of its territory — to Moscow.
It is not clear if the pope considers Ukraine ceding territory to be a “serious proposal for peace,” though the near-universal consensus among political and military analysts is that Putin cannot retain his position in power in Russia without demonstrating some kind of “victory” from his invasion.
If Francis is signaling his support for an end to the war even at the cost of Ukrainian territory, he will find himself an isolated voice on the diplomatic scene — even with an increasingly explicit nuclear threat from Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to reclaim all occupied Ukrainian territory, even including Crimea, which has been under Russian control since 2014 and was, unlike the four regions annexed in Friday, long considered part of Russian territory prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Senior NATO leaders, among them Germany’s chancellor, have insisted that Putin will not be allowed to dictate the terms of peace in Ukraine, and U.S. President Joe Biden said over the weekend that Putin “can’t seize his neighbor’s territory and get away with it.”
“America and its allies are not going to be intimidated by Putin and his reckless words and threats,” Biden said.
While Pope Francis may be, for the moment, the only Western leader appearing to signal a desire for peace on even partially Russian terms, that could shift in the coming weeks, especially if Russia continues to target Ukrainian civilian power and infrastructure, and cut off fuel supplies to Europe as winter draws in. And despite the apparent Western resolve not to negotiate with Putin, Russia has already signaled a kind of openness to discussing how much of the annexed territories it might be willing to accept as terms of peace.
On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that he would “need to clarify” the exact borders of the regions Russia is now laying claim to, suggesting that the situation remains, in effect, fluid, even after the annexation statement.
Of course, Russia has also been hit hard by economic sanctions since the invasion, and Putin’s recent partial mobilization — set to draft 300,000 men into front line service — have proved highly unpopular in the country. It is possible Putin might eventually settle for a kind of diplomatic victory, offering to accept the practical status quo ante before the invasion, in which Crimeam, Donetsk and Luhansk were all under Russian control, but with the territories no longer considered “disputed” but formally given to Russia.
But, even in this situation, were Pope Francis to view it as a “serious proposal for peace,” he would need to work hard to make a case to the international community, to say nothing of the Ukrainian people, who remain squarely behind Zelensky in ruling out any territorial concessions.
And if Francis does intend to push for peace on those terms, he may find his own words on the war, and his public interventions so far, could limit his effectiveness as an advocate for an unpopular peace for the sake of saving lives.
In the months since the invasion, the Vatican has been clear that Francis has wanted to preserve a neutral stance in order to act as a possible agent of negotiations and peace.
While the pope made the unusual gesture of presenting himself personally at the Russian embassy to the Vatican to plead for peace, his inability to get an invitation to Moscow or secure a meeting with Patriarch Krill of the Russian Orthodox Church has led the pope to decline repeated invitations to visit Kyiv.
In the months since the Russian invasion began, Francis has faced considerable criticism over his attempts to keep a neutral position. In the process, he has offered progressively strident condemnation of Russia’s actions, even while appearing at times to equivocate over responsibility for the violence.
A Holy Week plan to have both Russian and Ukrainian women carry the cross during the liturgy at the Colosseum was called off; the idea was condemned - even by Ukrainian Catholic bishops - as offensive and tone-deaf.
And after repeated comments from the pope were taken to imply the Ukrainians might be considered “unjust aggressors” in the conflict, the Vatican had to clarify that Ukrainains had a natural law right to defend themselves, and to receive military aid.
More recently, Francis provoked a formal complaint from Ukraine’s Vatican ambassador in August after he lamented the killing of Darya Dugina, the Russian ultra-nationalist media personality by a car bomb in Moscow.
While Russian security services have formally blamed Ukraine for her death, the Ukrainian government has denied any involvement, and even pro-government Russian media have largely dismissed the official narrative as fanciful. Yet Francis mourned Dugina as a “poor girl” and one of the “innocents” claimed by the “insanity of war.”
In the face of these repeated controversies, Francis has dialed up his rhetoric against the Russian invasion, calling it “senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious,” and referring just weeks ago to “the savage actions, the monstrosities” committed by Russian troops and the “tortured corpses they find” among the towns liberated from Russian occupation.
But while Francis has begun to speak of “martyred Ukraine,” he has also continued to criticize what he considers to be “simplistic” narratives of the war.
During a recent meeting with Jesuits from the society’s Russian region, the pope said that “it is a mistake to think that this is a cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys.” This has been interpreted by some analysts as an indication that Francis believes there are, as it were, very fine people on both sides of the invasion — even as one side threatens to use nuclear weapons to back up what the pope himself has called “actions contrary to the principles of international law.”
But a vacillating swing of papal tone, between sympathy for all sides and strident denunciations of Russian atrocities, will likely make it harder for Francis’ to gain support for “serious proposals for peace,” either in Ukraine or more broadly among international leaders.
The realpolitik of the war in Ukraine may require a choice between ever more dangerous escalation, albeit forced by Russia, and the sacrifice of Ukrainian land and families to prevent it.
Try as he might, Francis may find it impossible to make a case for peace without tacitly rewarding Putin’s war.
If the only realistic hope for a ceasefire will entail handing over Ukrainian territory — and the people living there — to Russian control, the pope will likely be expected to acknowledge frankly the injustice of what “serious” peace proposals actually entail.
Recognizing that injustice, and what it asks of Ukrainians, will be an essential first step toward convincing the pope’s doubters to take his call for peace seriously.