Since October 7, Pope Francis has paid special attention to the war in the Holy Land. As Israeli bombs began falling on Gaza in response to an unprecedented Hamas attack, the pontiff spoke often with parishioners at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, where hundreds of Palestinians had taken shelter.
The pope called the church “every day to say ‘hello’, to ask how they are doing, and to impart his blessing,” according to parish priest Fr. Gabriele. The frequent contact with Gaza’s only Catholic church is perhaps one reason for Francis’s emphatic stance against the war. It also helps explain why, when an Israeli sniper allegedly killed two Christian women who had taken shelter at the church, the pope pulled no punches in his criticism.
“Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings,” Francis said. “And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns.”
“This is war. This is terrorism,” he said. “May the drawing close of Christmas reinforce the commitment to open the paths to peace.”
As the faithful gather to celebrate Christmas, the Vatican finds itself facing a world in crisis. Well before the Gaza conflict kicked off, Pope Francis had already taken to saying that we are living through a third world war, with battlefields spread around the globe. “This is something that should give us pause for thought,” he told America Magazine last year. “What is happening to humanity that we have had three world wars in a century?”
The pope is in a unique position to fight back against this trend. In Catholic tradition, Pope Francis is both shepherd to his flock, which sometimes huddles in the world's darkest corners, and a head of state, with the backing of a seasoned corps of diplomat-priests trained at the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. He also has a nearly unparalleled ability to garner media coverage of his views.
Put simply, the pope is a stakeholder in nearly every world conflict, and he has the tools to do something about it.
Since his 2013 election, Francis has focused on fighting climate change, building ties with other faiths, discouraging war, and, of course, protecting Christians. These laudable goals have always been in tension, but the past year’s events have strained them even further.
Ukraine is a case in point. Despite pressure from Ukrainian Catholics, the pontiff has stubbornly refused to pin all of the blame for the war on Russia and insisted that the conflict can only end through talks. “I am simply against reducing something complex to the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, without reflecting on the roots and interests, which are very complex,” he said last year.
Ukrainian bishops reacted with fury when Francis praised figures from Russia’s imperial history in an August call with young Russian Catholics. The comments “are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence,” argued a letter from the leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic church, which is in communion with the Vatican.
But Pope Francis has remained steadfast in his neutral stance on the war, a position that gives him more room to maneuver than those who have firmly backed Russia or Ukraine. At nearly every public audience since the war began, he has mourned the “martyred” Ukrainians and called on both sides to lay down their arms, highlighting the conflict’s enormous impact on civilians.
Notably, his careful efforts to rebuild ties with the Russian Orthodox Church have also borne some fruit.
The Holy See has led an initiative to swap noncombatant prisoners via a winding backchannel, according to the Washington Post. First, Ukrainian officials pass on lists of prisoners to the papal nuncio (the Catholic equivalent of an ambassador) in Kyiv, who then forwards them to the Vatican. Then, the Holy See sends the documents along to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, personally delivers them to the Kremlin. This effort has resulted in several prisoner swaps.
The pope’s more ambitious project — facilitating talks to end the war — has been less successful. In May, Francis appointed Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as his “peace envoy” for Ukraine. Zuppi, who helped end a civil war in Mozambique in 1992, quickly set off on trips to Ukraine and Russia before a July stopover to the United States, where he met with President Joe Biden for two hours.
Zuppi scored a notable victory for papal diplomacy in September, when he visited Beijing and secured a high-level meeting with a Chinese official — “the first-ever meeting in the Chinese capital between the Holy See and a senior Chinese official,” as Alejandro Reyes recently noted in RS. With a new cold war brewing, the Vatican has managed to maintain or even improve ties with each of the world’s great powers.
Recognizing that peace talks remain far off, Zuppi has pivoted to focus on the repatriation of Ukrainian children who have been taken from their families and resettled in Russia. As the Pillar has reported, Francis’s peace envoy has signaled that there is some momentum on this front. “Progress is slow, but something is moving,” Zuppi said last month.
Ukraine, then, demonstrates both the extent of and limits on the pope’s ability to affect events. The pontiff can focus world attention on the human costs of war and force leaders to think about peace, but he has no real mechanism to enforce his will.
This brings us back to Gaza, where more than two months of war has left more than 20,000 Palestinians dead and much of the strip in ruins. As Israel began its full-scale invasion of Gaza in October, Pope Francis reportedly told Israeli President Isaac Herzog that it is “forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”
The call apparently went so poorly that neither side opted to publicize it. (Israeli officials have studiously avoided any public criticism of the pope.) A Vatican spokesperson told the Washington Post that the call, “like others in the same days, takes place in the context of the Holy Father’s efforts aimed at containing the gravity and scope of the conflict situation in the Holy Land.”
Since the pope has limited leverage over Hamas or Israel, he has largely used his media megaphone to highlight the plight of civilians and call for an end to the war. Francis held separate audiences with the families of people who had died in Gaza and the loved ones of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, with each group hoping that the meetings would focus world attention on their plight. A ceasefire remains elusive.
Last Christmas, Pope Francis called on believers to turn their gaze to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. “We must acknowledge with sorrow that, even as the Prince of Peace is given to us, the icy winds of war continue to buffet humanity,” he lamented.
Despite the pontiff’s best efforts, those winds have now swept into the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, there will be no public celebrations of Christmas this year.
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
Pope Francis stands by a figurine of baby Jesus during the Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter's Basilica amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at the Vatican December 24, 2020. Vincenzo Pinto/ Pool via REUTERS
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.