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Diplomacy Watch: The pope is (mostly) right about Ukraine

Diplomacy Watch: The pope is (mostly) right about Ukraine

It does Kyiv no favors to pretend that this war is going well

Analysis | QiOSK

Pope Francis drew sharp backlash this week for a comment calling on Ukraine to demonstrate “the courage of the white flag” and enter into negotiations with Russia.

“When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate,” the pope said in an interview recorded last month but only publicized this week.

European leaders quickly rebuked the pontiff, and Ukrainian officials summoned the Vatican’s envoy to Kyiv for a diplomatic dressing down. “The head of the Holy See would be expected to send signals to the world community about the need to immediately join forces to ensure the victory of good over evil,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Vatican subsequently insisted that Pope Francis meant that both sides should lay down arms and come to the table, not that Ukraine should unilaterally surrender, as the “white flag” comment suggests. “First of all it should be the aggressors who stop firing,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a top Holy See official. “The same human will that caused this tragedy also has the possibility and the responsibility to take steps to end it and to open the way to a diplomatic solution.”

This back-and-forth says a lot about Europe’s rose-tinted views on the war. Many Western officials and commentators suggested that the pope was taking Russia’s side, but they ignored the meat of his critique: The war is going badly for Ukraine, and it does Kyiv no favors to delay negotiations as momentum shifts in Moscow’s direction.

Simply put, Ukraine now faces a mix of political and military challenges that make near-term battlefield success unlikely. On an annual basis, Russia now makes three times more artillery shells than NATO can send to Ukraine, giving Moscow a major advantage in what many experts now describe as a war of attrition.

And there’s little chance of this changing soon. The U.S. Congress is unlikely to pass new aid for Ukraine in the near future, according to Punchbowl News. Ukraine’s congressional backers have pitched last-ditch efforts to get a spending package through the House via a special procedure that bypasses Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — a prominent Ukraine skeptic who has blocked previous attempts to get a vote on new spending. But disagreements over whether to include U.S. border security measures — and the fact that Ukraine aid is tied to new funding for Israel — make this moon-shot effort that much more difficult.

Kyiv has already seen the consequences of delayed aid on the battlefield, according to the State Department. “We have seen Ukraine suffer battlefield losses in recent weeks that either they would not have suffered, or would not have been as severe, if they had the U.S. support, the U.S. ammunition that we [...] have committed to provide them,” argued Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is struggling to keep morale high at home after replacing Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, a highly visible and popular leader of Ukraine’s defense who is now being shipped off to London to serve as the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Kingdom.

All of this helps to make clear why, especially outside the U.S. and Europe, the pope’s comments sound closer to reality than a lot of the pontification coming from European capitals. The question facing Western leaders is simple: Are you willing to bet on a sudden reversal of battlefield momentum even if it risks the collapse of Ukrainian forces and, thus, Ukraine’s future as an independent state? If not, then maybe it’s time to start pushing for talks before a bad situation gets that much worse.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Former President Donald Trump will “not give a penny” to Ukraine if he wins reelection in November, said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following a meeting with Trump last Friday, according to Reuters. “If the Americans do not give money and weapons, and also the Europeans, then this war will be over,” Orban said over the weekend. “And if the Americans do not give money, the Europeans are unable to finance this war on their own, and then the war will end.” While Trump has long argued that he could end the conflict rapidly if given the chance, he has yet to publicly confirm that he would cut off all funding for Kyiv.

— Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country is “ready” to use nuclear weapons if necessary but added that he sees the possibility of a nuclear exchange over Ukraine as unlikely, according to CNN. The comment comes on the heels of new revelations about U.S. estimates that Russia was considering using a nuclear weapon in late 2022 if Ukrainian forces breached Russian defenses and made a run toward Crimea.

— Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Zelensky that he is ready to host a peace summit between Ukraine and Russia, according to AP News. “Since the beginning, we have contributed as much as we could toward ending the war through negotiations,” Erdogan said. “We are also ready to host a peace summit in which Russia will also be included.” The Turkish leader reiterated later in the week that “peace plans excluding Russia will not yield any results.”

— In Foreign Policy, Harvard professor and Quincy Institute board member Stephen Walt made the case that NATO should not bring Ukraine into its alliance. Walt’s argument focuses on the fact that NATO states have already made clear that they are not willing to enter a direct confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. “If we were willing to do so, we would have troops there already. Does it make sense to tacitly promise to fight for Ukraine five or 10 or 20 years from now, if you’re unwilling to do so today?”

“Ukraine’s supporters in the West need to think creatively about alternative security arrangements that can reassure Ukraine in the context of a postwar armistice or peace agreement. Kyiv needs to be secure against Moscow renewing the war; it cannot agree to be disarmed or be forced to accept de facto Russian domination. Figuring out how to provide sufficient protection in ways that won’t provoke Moscow into renewing the war will not be easy. But rushing into NATO is not the best route to a safer Ukraine; it is more likely to prolong the war and leave that long-suffering country worse off than ever.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine’s peace plan, which Russia has rejected. “We support [Ukraine’s] peace formula, and we would support its efforts to peacefully end this war, but that requires Vladimir Putin to stop attacking, to stop trying to take and claim and hold Ukrainian territory, and to agree to negotiations – and he has so far not been willing to do so,” Miller said.

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