José Antonio de Yturriaga
Ambassador of Spain and professor of Diplomatic Law
As Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine intensifies and the West grows weary of the economic inconvenience caused by the conflict, third-party positions of supposed equidistance are beginning to emerge, advocating peace not through the aggressor’s concessions, but through the concessions of the aggressor. These positions do not put the aggressor and the aggressed on an equal footing, but rather place the aggressed at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the aggressor, because “reasonable” pressure is exerted on the aggressor to negotiate with him in order to achieve peace. An example of this is the unfortunate statements made by Pope Francis and the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, who I don’t know if they are aware that they are favouring Vladimir Putin.
Statements by the Pope to Corriere della Sera and La Stampa
Pope Francis, who on 3 May made some surprising statements to the editor of Il Corriere della Sera, Luciano Fontana, in which he somewhat exculpated Putin for starting the war against Ukraine, saying that he might have felt compelled to invade because “NATO was barking at Russia’s door”, and pointed out that there was no way of knowing whether the Alliance had provoked Putin’s anger, but that he suspected it might have been facilitated by the West’s attitude. By implicitly blaming NATO for provoking the conflict, he exculpated those solely responsible for it, the satrap Putin. A consequence of these statements was undoubtedly Martin Gras’ article on “NATO’s barking”, in which he argued that the Ukrainian war was a case of violence applied to conflict resolution, in which there was not a “political moment” interrupted by a “war moment”, but a continuity linking politics and violence.
It could have been a “gaffe” on the part of the Pontiff due to some “hot flash”, but this does not seem to be the case, because Pope Francis has again made a mistake by expanding and making his controversial comments more explicit. In an interview with the editors of the European cultural magazines of the Society of Jesus – published in the daily La Stampa and the magazine Civiltà Cattolica – the Pope – who reiterated his view that World War III had already begun – revealed the opinion of an unnamed head of state, who told him that he had foreseen the outbreak of war in advance “because of the way NATO was moving”. When asked on what basis he had such information, he replied that “they are barking at Russia’s door and do not understand that the Russians are imperial and do not allow any foreign power to come near them”, so that – should such a circumstance arise – the situation would lead to armed conflict. According to the Pope, this ambassador knew how to read the signs of what was going on and interpret them properly.
Weakness of the Pope’s arguments
The argument could not be weaker. With regard to the claim that NATO’s approach to Russia’s borders poses a grave danger to Russian sovereignty, it should be noted that this has been the case for years in Norway and the Baltic states, and Russia has not yet felt compelled to invade any of its neighbours. Moreover, Russia’s first aggression – the invasion of Georgia in 2008 – was justified not by the presence of NATO troops on Georgian territory but by the Georgian government’s request to join the Alliance. These were merely distant howling attempts that could hardly affect the security of the Russian Federation. The consequence was the split of two Georgian regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which were recognised as independent states by Russia and six other states.
In the case of Ukraine, the excuse was the ‘revolt of colours’ in Maidan Square, which began on 21 November 2013 and ended on 22 February 2014, when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych – who had withdrawn Ukraine’s application for NATO membership – fled to Russia and was dismissed by the Rada. This was the reason why Russia invaded Crimea and annexed it, on the pretext that Ukraine’s Nikita Khrushchev had illegally given Crimea to Ukraine and that the territory’s parliament had decided to separate the peninsula from Ukraine and incorporate it into Russia. At the same time, the Russian government sent disguised troops to the Donbas to support the rebel guerrillas and provided them with military, political, economic and logistical support for the declaration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which were to be recognised as independent states on 23 February 2022, one day before the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian armed forces.
Russia gave NATO an ultimatum to formally guarantee its refusal to accept Ukraine as a member of the Alliance, and threatened it with a ‘military response’ if it did not return to its 1997 borders. Putin justified the launch of the “military technical operation” over Ukraine on the grounds that NATO was preparing to invade Russia from Ukrainian territory and that it was necessary to end the genocide of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population and “denazify” the country. After the failure of the ‘blitzkrieg operation’ to occupy Kiev and overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelensky, he launched a comprehensive war against the whole of Ukraine, in which not only military targets but also civilian objects, including health and school facilities and residential buildings, are shelled on a daily basis.
By Evgeni Primakov’s own admission, NATO enlargement was more a psychological issue than a real threat to Russia, as successive NATO enlargements have never affected the military balance in Europe or Russia’s defence capabilities. Even an eventual Ukrainian accession – which is unlikely because it does not interest most NATO members – would not affect this balance and is of little concern to Putin. What really worried him was the bad example that a democratic Ukraine would set for Russia. Russia’s efforts to consolidate its democracy run in the opposite direction to the Putin regime’s ever more pronounced drift towards autocracy and human rights violations, and what he really fears is the “contagion effect”, as the Russian people might see that a state in the region that has so much in common with Russia can become a fully democratic state. This, ultimately, has been the cause of Russia’s merciless aggression, not the alleged reason for NATO enlargement.
Putin has also invoked the grave risk of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, but the Russian president has concealed the fact that Ukraine once had such weapons, which it gave up and voluntarily surrendered to Russia under the 1994 Budapest Treaty – endorsed by the US and Britain – in exchange for Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The eventual deployment of nuclear weapons in Ukraine – to which Ukraine is fully entitled – would not be a reason to justify its invasion, apart from the fact that NATO has tended to self-limit its rights and has not established nuclear facilities in Russia’s neighbourhood. This has not been the case with Russia, which has all kinds of weapons in the Kaliningrad enclave in the heart of the Alliance. The Pope is well aware of the situation because the Vatican diplomatic service is one of the best informed in the world, so his statements are incomprehensible.
The Pontiff said that “we have to move away from the normal pattern that Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was bad. Something global is emerging with very intertwined elements”. What is he implying with this unfortunate metaphor: that the Little Red Riding Hood-Ukraine is the bad guy and the wolf-Putin is the good guy? That the wolf is NATO, not Russia? For Francis there is a danger of focusing only on “the brutality and ferocity with which this war is being waged by the troops – usually mercenaries – used by the Russians, who prefer to send Chechens, Syrians and mercenaries”. Now it turns out that those responsible for the grave atrocities committed are not the peaceful Russians but their evil allies, but who gives the orders to send hundreds of missiles and projectiles from tanks, planes or ships every day against any target in Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths and injuries? If the Pope believes in human justice, he should support impartial international tribunals to prosecute – and eventually convict – those responsible for crimes against humanity.
With his anti-NATO fixation, Francis added that “we must also look at the drama unfolding behind this war, which, perhaps in some way, was provoked or not prevented”. Who provoked it? NATO, which has not deployed a single soldier on the battlefield and is haggling over the supply of sophisticated weaponry necessary for the assaulted Ukraine to cope with Russian military might, infinitely superior to that of Ukraine? Who sinned by not preventing the invasion? It can be none other than Russia and its head of state, who – after massing impressive military contingents along Ukraine’s borders – claimed with the utmost impudence that it had no intention of invading Ukraine. Of course, at this point, what was Putin’s word worth?
Pope Francis must have a somewhat “guilty conscience” when he remarked that some people think he is pro-Putin in this way of thinking, but he justified himself by saying: “No, I am not. It is simplistic and wrong to say such a thing. But I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good and evil without thinking about the roots and interests, which are very complex”. This justification is unconvincing. It is true that sometimes it is not easy to distinguish between good and evil, and that there is no absolute good and absolute evil on earth, but many grey areas between one and the other. But it is my firm conviction that, in the case of the cruel aggression against Ukraine, Putin has absolutely nothing to do with good. To maintain doubts about the correctness of the Russian president’s actions, to blame NATO for starting the war, and to exonerate the main – if not the only one – responsible for it, is to offer oxygen to an international criminal whose infamous actions have earned him a trial for crimes against humanity.
Asked whether he would visit Ukraine, the Pontiff replied that he should first go to Russia. Why? What reason does he have to give precedence to the aggressor over the assaulted? He implied that he had made his desire to go to Moscow to mediate known to the Kremlin, but had not received a reply. He has, however, received an invitation from President Zelenski to visit a nation in the flesh where several million Catholics live, but he has not been willing to respond positively to the invitation. Moscow yes, but Kiev no. That, for a Catholic, is difficult to understand. I accept and respect the Pope’s pronouncements on matters of dogma and morality, but I do not always agree with Francis’ positions on political issues outside his spiritual mission as head of the Catholic Church, as in the case of Ukraine.
The American Jesuit magazine America Magazine has come out against the Pope and – in an article on “What critics of the Pope’s comments don’t understand about Vatican diplomacy” – Victor Gaetan has stated that the Pontiff should maintain an equidistant position from all sides, which would open the way to constructive diplomacy for peace. Pope Francis had condemned the war against Ukraine and referred to it as a sacrilegious conflict that was causing death, destruction and misery, but he did not want to directly confront Putin, whom he does not even mention in his speeches. Nor did he speak of the innocence of a Ukraine attacked and destroyed for no reason, in contrast to the blatant guilt of Russia, which is violating the norms of international law and humanitarian law. Why, Gaetan asked, did the Pope refrain from mentioning these truths, and his answer was that, by refraining from condemning Putin, Francis hoped to create a space in which the Church’s peace diplomacy could successfully mediate at a decisive moment.
However, as journalist Clarissa Ward has said, it is not possible to remain neutral in the midst of this war, “Ukraine is a sovereign country that has not committed any act of aggression, that has been illegally invaded and where thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced. It is ridiculous to try to be neutral and to imply that the two sides are just two sides of the same coin”. The West cannot accept that a sovereign nation in Europe is suffering the largest invasion since World War II, that many people are dying every day in an unjust war, and that the European security order has crumbled under Putin’s attempt to rewrite it.
It is possible to be neutral and equidistant between two states guilty of armed conflict, to try to mediate between them in order to achieve a negotiated solution, but it is not possible to adopt a similar attitude between the aggressor and the aggressed, putting them on an equal footing. From an evangelical point of view, the parable of the prodigal son cannot be applied to Putin because – unlike the prodigal son – Putin has never shown the slightest sign of repentance and insists again and again on his criminal actions.
Putin’s argument that it is a historical duty to return Ukraine to mother Russia in order to restore the integrity of the Tsarist empire sits poorly with the threats made against Sweden – which was never part of it – or Finland – which was, but managed to throw off the Russian yoke – for the unforgivable crime of applying for NATO membership. Top European leaders Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi – sadly, Pedro Sánchez was not among them – made a testimonial visit to Kiev yesterday to reaffirm to Zelenski the EU’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and blackmail.
Some feared that European leaders would use the occasion to pressure Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table with its aggressor and make territorial concessions in the interests of peace. However, this moment does not yet seem to have arrived, which – according to British historian Mark Galeotti – could come in the autumn, when the parties are exhausted militarily and economically, and fatigue sets in in the West, and then we will be faced with the question of negotiation.
Pressure must indeed be exerted, but not on Ukraine, but on Russia, which is responsible for the situation. Peace negotiations cannot begin as long as Russia continues to attack Ukraine in the way it has been doing, let alone put pressure on the latter to not only put up the dead but also parts of its territory in order to achieve a peace that will only directly benefit Russia and indirectly benefit the Western powers.
From a legal point of view, it is worth remembering in relation to possible peace negotiations that – according to Articles 52 and 53 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties – any treaty whose conclusion has been obtained by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of the UN Charter or which – at the time of its conclusion – is in conflict with a peremptory norm of international law is null and void. Both would be the case if Ukraine were forced into negotiations as a result of Russian armed aggression.
Macron should reconsider his view that Putin cannot be humiliated and that he must be given an honourable way out of a conflict he provoked, even if he is unwilling to leave if he is not given the concessions he seeks to impose by force of arms. Is anyone humiliated by negotiating a just peace that returns to the “status quo ante” that existed before Ukraine’s aggression began? What NATO needs to do now is to change its miserly attitude of limiting arms supplies to Ukraine and expand them appropriately, as urgently demanded by Zelenski, who bitterly claims that barely 10 per cent of what was requested has been provided.
There seems to be an unwritten commitment among Alliance members not to send heavy weapons to Ukraine in order to avoid direct confrontation with Russia, but such an attitude is unacceptable when Russia is massacring a defenceless nation. It is fine for the Alliance not to send troops, given that Ukraine is not a NATO member, but it is only right that it should provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself against unrelenting Russian aggression. Stoltenberg has said that more advanced equipment and heavy weapons systems were being supplied since February, but they are not enough. We need to move from words to deeds and provide the weapons to counter Russian bombardment now, without waiting for the Madrid summit at the end of this month.
The EU, for its part, should grant Ukraine candidate status at its Council meeting on the 23rd. This would be an important political endorsement and considerable moral support for the Ukrainian people, which would not have irreparable consequences, as the admission process will be a lengthy one, since – as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned – there can be no shortcuts to Ukraine’s accession. Obviously, if Ukraine has to make major reforms to meet Copenhagen’s admission requirements, it is impossible to do so at this time of war and time will have to be given, but it would be an important statement of principle that would boost the morale of the Ukrainian people, who are being destroyed by Russia for wanting to be European.
For some right-thinking people, Putin and Russia cannot be humiliated, but Zelenski and the martyred Ukrainian people can be humiliated. It should be just the opposite, for – as the Gospel says – the Lord “has scattered those who are fattened by the thoughts of their hearts, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52).
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