How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended Vatican’s multilateral foreign policy


The Vatican’s multilateral approach to foreign policy has ended with the war in Ukraine as Pope Francis takes an increasingly anti-Putin stance, Vatican expert Piero Schiavazzi told EURACTIV.

The Pope’s multilateralism in foreign policy “began with Putin back in September 2013 and ended at the beginning of the war in Ukraine,” Schiavazzi, a journalist specialising in Vatican politics and a professor of Vatican Geopolitics at Link Campus University in Rome, said.

He added that in the first week of the Russian invasion, the Pope “remained equidistant”, explaining that he was “most likely trying to take a mediation role in the conflict”.

However, the Vatican’s tone has become increasingly more critical in subsequent weeks.

On Sunday (6 March), the Pope described the situation in Ukraine as a war and not a special military operation, as per Russian terminology. Two weeks later, on 20 March, the Pope described the events as an “aggression”, emphasising that the Russians had invaded a sovereign territory.

During his visit to Malta on 2 and 3 April, the Pope delivered his strongest condemnation to date.

“Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, while ordinary people sense the need to build a future that will either be shared or not be at all,” he said.

Picking up momentum with his rhetoric, the Pope went even further by condemning the inaction of the United Nations while displaying a Ukrainian flag from Bucha.

“Today we often speak of ‘geopolitics’, but unfortunately, the dominant logic is that of the strategies of the most powerful States to affirm their interests by extending their area of economic, ideological and military influence”, the Pope said.

According to Schiavazzi, the evolution to heavy criticism occurred because the Pope did not obtain his desired results from Russia after trying to position himself as a mediator in early March.

“The period of peace in Europe is over,” Schiavazzi said, describing how, now that Europe is at war, the Pope considers Putin to represent the “uncivilised world”.

From unilateralism to multilateralism – and back?

These words mark a shift from the Pope’s previously more delicate tone on Russia’s foreign wars, particularly, in the case of Syria, the stance of multilateralism and mediation.

Following Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on a school in late 2013, US President Barack Obama gave a speech to the nation, saying that the US must intervene against such brutalities.

At the time, the Pope wrote a letter to Putin on the occasion of the G20 summit, urging world leaders to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Following the Pope’s call, Putin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, asking the United States for more cooperation in dealing with Syria, respecting international law and indirectly stating the necessity of a Russian role in the region as the Pope asked.

“Americans were not very happy about this, of course”, said Schiavazzi.

“This call back in 2013 can be seen as the attempt of the Pope to go beyond the US unilateralism on MENA region stability, but instead to contribute to the latter with an international multilateralism approach,” Schiavazzi reflected.

The Pope’s latest comments demonstrate a different direction for Vatican City’s foreign policy from this 2013 shift towards multilateralism. The new rhetoric is more explicitly opposed to Putin and more “westernised” in tone – one Schiavazzi described as potentially “changing the world order”.

[Edited by Alice Tayor]

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