Pope Francis brings credibility as mediator in war

— Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

Pope Francis has launched a peace mission aimed at finding a settlement of the Russia-Ukraine war, upsetting Ukraine’s allies with his refusal to insist that Russia leave Ukraine as a starting point for negotiations. For their part, the Russians simply ignore the pope. 

Western supporters of Ukraine accuse the pope of moral equivalency, treating both sides as equal. This is nonsense.

Just four weeks into the war, in March 2022, the pope condemned the “the violent aggression against Ukraine” and the “senseless massacre where every day there is a repetition of slaughter and atrocities. There is no justification for this!”

The Vatican has always said it wants a “just peace.” When America Media’s Gerard O’Connell asked Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, what a just peace meant for the Vatican, Gallagher said it meant a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. 

Francis has also noted “the interest in testing and selling weapons” to combatants in the war. There is no question that the American military-industrial complex is profiting in Ukraine, financially as well as strategically: The Russian war machine is being severely degraded without the loss of a single American life.

 “While we witness the ferocity and cruelty of Russian troops,” Francis told La Civilta Cattolica, “we should not forget the problems, and seek to solve them.”

The pope is not cheering on either side in this war, which is an essential quality needed in a mediator. The pope has appointed Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as a special envoy for peace in Ukraine. Both sides have used the Vatican for facilitating exchanges of prisoners, which is a good sign.

With Ukraine unwilling to give up any of its territory — including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 — is there something else that would allow Putin to save face in defeat? I think there is: nuclear weapons.

The West has always feared the Red Army sweeping into Europe. That is the reason NATO exists. Because the U.S. and Europe were unwilling to pay for enough conventional weapons to stop what they considered a formidable force, they relied on tactical nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the Red Army’s invasion. 

We now see that the Russian army is more show than substance. If Ukraine can hold off the Russians and score victories, NATO would wipe the floor with them without using tactical nuclear weapons.

This military reality calls for a rethinking of NATO’s nuclear policy. As part of settling the Ukraine-Russia war, NATO and the U.S. should do two things: First, swear off the first use of nuclear weapons in Europe. Second, negotiate the elimination or at least reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Ukraine will have to agree to not “officially” join NATO. The war has already made Ukraine part of NATO unofficially. Ukraine would continue to receive weapons, but no NATO troops could be deployed on Ukrainian soil.

Putin, as an authoritarian autocrat, can continue this war indefinitely. The West must give him something to get him to stop. He could save face by telling his people that the war succeeded in forcing NATO into this deal.

There is a temptation to let the war go on as long as Russia is stymied and suffering huge military losses, in the hope that the war’s failure will bring down Putin. But Ukraine is also suffering both military and civilian losses.

The pope reminds us to look at “the human side of the war,” the impact on people’s lives, the deaths, the refugees, the widows and orphans. The war cannot be examined only in terms of geopolitical calculations. Too many people are dying. The pope is right in calling for peace. Giving up tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would be a cheap price to pay for it.

Thomas J. Reese

Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and longtime journalist who formerly edited America, a Catholic journal of opinion published Read More

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