Pope Francis’s anti-western views are well known – and his new advice would lead not to peace, but a dangerous escalation

Nathalie Tocci

13 Mar 2024

The Guardian


The suggestion from Pope Francis that Ukraine should have the “courage” to raise the “white flag” and negotiate a settlement with (in other words, surrender to) Russia was deeply shocking for Kyiv and its backers. The understandably outraged response from Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, was that the only flag Kyiv would raise was its own: the yellow and blue of Ukraine.

Some may think that the pope’s words are inconsequential to how this war unfolds. It is not the first time Pope Francis has displayed overtly pro-Russian sympathies, nor has the Vatican’s mediation, for instance regarding the liberation of Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russia, been successful so far. So what if the pope speaks out again about the war, given that his views are already known and his practical efforts to address the humanitarian dimensions of the war have failed?

Yet the pope’s words are extremely relevant, and dangerously so. First, they provide moral cover to an unabashedly pro-Kremlin line that runs deep in some quarters in the west, from Trumpian Republicans in the US to the nationalist right and populist left in Europe, to the point of being almost mainstream in countries like my own, Italy. Claiming that the war can only end with Ukraine’s surrender is precisely what Vladimir Putin has been preaching for more than two years. The fact that a religious authority such as the Vatican toes the same line provides incredible political ammunition to the Kremlin and its cheerleaders in Europe and beyond.

Second, the pope’s words matter because they reflect views that are widespread in the global south. In fact, rather than a pro-Russian sentiment, what the pope projects is a deep-rooted anti-westernism. This consequently taints his reading of the war, with its emphasis on Nato’s presumed culpability and the agenda of the western military-industrial complex. The west’s failure to persuasively make its case in the global south is a problem for it, especially as the views and voices of the south matter more and more in today’s international relations. The problem has been greatly exacerbated by the US and Europe’s unwillingness to halt Israel’s catastrophic war in Gaza.

Precisely because the pope’s words matter, it’s important to say why he’s wrong. I believe he’s wrong on the past, the present and perhaps most importantly the future. The pope betrays his underlying beliefs on the past causes of the war through both admission and omission. Two years since the invasion began, Ukraine is, it is now generally accepted, struggling on the battlefront.

Some could claim that the pope’s call for surrender is therefore purely driven by detached political realism (perhaps an odd theoretical tradition for a religious authority, but nevertheless), so it is better to give in now than to persevere in defeat.

However, if realism is really what motivates the pope, why didn’t he call on Russia to surrender and withdraw when its first attempt to subjugate Ukraine failed and Ukraine recaptured about half of the territory it lost in the first few weeks of the invasion? When the pope talks of Ukraine raising the white flag while making no mention whatsoever of Russia, what he’s actually doing is perversely blaming Ukraine (and the west) for provoking Russia into war (for instance, by aspiring to enter Nato), totally neglecting the imperial ambitions that drove the Kremlin to invade Ukraine. Yet the past is past, and there’s probably nothing that can change strongly held beliefs on the causes of the war. Those, like the pope, who believe that the west is to blame for it all, will probably continue to do so regardless of the evidence produced to prove the opposite.

However, the pontiff’s mistakes are not limited to its causes. The war’s present dynamic, and particularly Ukraine’s problems on the frontline, stems from the fact that the western military-industrial complex, reviled by the pope, has done too little, not too much. Rather than the west’s defence industry fuelling war, Ukraine’s recent losses are due to a lack of manpower and especially a lack of weapons to fend off Russia’s invasion. Europe’s defence industry has not been put on a war footing (unlike Russia’s), while the US Congress still holds $60bn in military aid to Kyiv hostage to domestic political wrangling.

There is nothing preordained in the war’s outcome, as the pope implies. If Ukraine is losing, it’s down to the fact that its artillery fire is a fraction of what it was last summer, and while the west dithers, Russia has replenished its military stocks and North Korea has sent Moscow roughly 1.5m shells. Ukraine needs weapons not “just” to defend its frontline, but also to protect the civilian population that should be dear to the pope. It’s thanks to western air defences that Ukraine can protect its citizens and civilian infrastructure across the country from Russian drone and missile strikes. It’s also thanks to western military capabilities that Ukraine has knocked out about a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, ensuring that grain can continue flowing to the global south, despite Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain initiative last year.

Looking to the future, the pope assumes that a Ukrainian surrender would put an end to the war, presumably via a deal allowing Russia to retain control of the five Ukrainian regions it has annexed illegally, and perhaps a few more (like Odesa). These are the kind of terms Donald Trump would probably also like to see. Of course, no one has a crystal ball. Yet if Putin’s past behaviour is any indication, there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest this would represent a steady state ending the war.

What the pope chooses to forget is that this is not the first war that Putin has waged in Europe, beginning with Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Every time the west sidelined and played down the Russian threat, Moscow came back to bite off a bigger piece. Likewise, the pope neglects Russia’s military buildup, which European intelligence claims could pose a direct threat to Nato in a few years’ time.

In short, even in the morally reprehensible scenario in which the pope’s words are heeded and the west throws Ukraine under the bus, all signals point to the fact that this would not lead to peace in Europe. More likely it would open up the continent to an even more dangerous and deadly phase of this unjust war.


Nathalie Tocci is a Guardian Europe columnist