Francis has repeatedly decried the ‘inhuman and sacrilegious cruelty’ of the war in Ukraine, but his statements on the conflict resist easy analysis
The Vatican diplomatic service is rightly famed for its range of contacts, its diplomats’ skill and knowledge of history and culture and the prudence of their judgements. Speaking to the editors of Jesuit newspapers, the Pope approvingly quoted an unnamed head of state (“a very wise man indeed”) who had expressed concern last year that Nato “was barking at the gates of Russia”. The war, the Pope suggested, “was perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented”. To some observers, far from maintaining a shrewd impartiality, Pope Francis was swallowing the Kremlin line that the blame for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – and for schools, hospitals, apartment blocks and civilians in cars being blasted to oblivion in the manner of Hitlerian blitzkrieg – lies not with Russia but with the West.
Putin needed a moral justification for his war and it’s certainly true that he settled on the story of Nato provocation to provide it. Like every violent bully, Putin claims he “had no choice” and that his victim “made me do it”. He used the argument that Nato was seeking to expand up to the Russian border to justify his invasion of Georgia in 2008, his annexation of Crimea and the smouldering war to absorb the Donbas region into Russia that began in 2014, and then the invasion and attempt to bring Ukraine back into Russian control that began on 24 February.