Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Press / TASS / Alexei Nikolsky

The conflict in Ukraine over the territorial and security discourses between President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Vladimir Putin has garnered a massive outpouring of sympathy and concern worldwide, prompting Pope Francis to call for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine on March 2 – Ash Wednesday – a solemn feast day for Catholics around the world.

In looking at the wider scheme of things, Ukraine is nothing more than a proxy of a global nuclearization initiative by the US for the containment of Russia in Europe via NATO, while its allies in the Indo-Pacific region are nuclearizing the South China Sea for the containment of China.

But if Putin, US President Joe Biden and his allies, including the leadership of NATO, were allowed to think that they have the unilateral right to do as they want to gain political supremacy at all costs, then all the fatalities in Ukraine, including all the hardships caused by their actions around the world, are nothing but expendable collateral damage.

If left unchecked, the regional nuclearization of Europe will expand progressive into other regions and we would have to be praying and fasting for peace in East Asia very soon.  

As Catholics around the world get ready to embrace Ash Wednesday in preparation for Easter, it is imperative that we also bear the cross to look deeper into the various conflicts that are perpetuating beneath the current conflict in Ukraine and understand its root causes if we do not want to be complicit in being “conspirators of silence,” a term coined by the late Pope Pius XI.

So what exactly is fueling the stand-off between the Kremlin and the Western powers in Ukraine, and why it is so important for us to pray and fast for peace in a state of greater consciousness?

Understanding Ukraine’s internal conflict

The territorial sovereignty of Ukraine was enlarged progressively by Russia over many years and this has led to a major domestic divide within Ukraine, which Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State of the US, refers to as a largely “Catholic west” that favors Europe and a largely “Orthodox east” which favors Russia.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has been locked in a constant pendulum-like swing between Russia and Europe, and no president in Ukraine has ever been able to unite the country since its independence.

But when talks about Ukraine joining the EU were announced in 2002 by then-President Leonid Kuchma, issues of security in the region began to surface, and that underpinned the current tension between the part of Ukraine trying to join the EU and Russia’s concerns about NATO militarization right at its border.

For reasons only known to NATO, it has never bothered to address these security concerns with Russia.  

This prompted Kuchma to sign a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership with Russia, while acknowledging Russian as an official language of Ukraine to address the concerns of eastern Ukrainians.

But when President Viktor Yanukovych came to power in 2010, he started to halt Kuchma’s plan to join the EU, but was preoccupied with the Minsk II summit, a peace initiative to temporarily defuse escalating tensions by armed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, in the pro-Russia region of Donbas.

After he was toppled in the bloody 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, President Petro Poroshenko took over and reversed Yanukovych’s decision by resuming talks to join the EU and taking a confrontational approach to Russia by referring to the separatists in the Donbas region as “Somali pirates.”

In trying to make nationalism a key feature of his presidency when he was suffering a serious trust deficit for his failure to stem corruption and overlooking the interests of Russian-speaking regions, he had a taste of the Ukrainian divide when he only managed to garner 24.5% of the votes in the 2019 election and lost to Zelensky.

Without a solution to unite Ukraine going forward and having to watch helplessly as its economy was ravaged by a pandemic over the past two years, Zelensky’s government was finally caught in the stand-off with its powerful neighbor.

Kissinger’s advice on Ukraine

In his 2014 opinion piece on Ukraine in The Washington Post, Kissinger was right in stating that the future of the country lies firstly with its people, not NATO or Russia, and that they must be decisive about it as only Ukrainians can understand its “complex history and its polyglot composition.”

For peace to work in Ukraine, both its eastern and western fractions must come to an amicable compromise so a collective trust can be established to restore the sovereignty of Ukraine and its future.

In its current state of political crisis, the call for unity in Ukraine now falls on its religious leaders, and if they can put aside their differences, then there is real hope of peace and unity for Ukrainians.

As the world is fast shifting toward being multi-polar and where multilateralism plays a vital role, it may be imperative for Ukrainians to see its future as an independent country, one that is capable of playing a vital role in “bridging Russia and Europe,” as opined by Kissinger.

By being an independent country, Ukraine can deny Russia from taking any further unilateral actions on its soil and also get itself out of the proxy war of NATO.

As for finding an amicable resolution on Crimea, Ukraine has a higher probability of success in getting Russia to recognize its sovereignty if it can appreciate how vital the Black Sea Fleet is to Russia and be open to accepting a “balanced dissatisfaction” over the “pursuit of absolute satisfaction,” but that is something for Zelensky or the next president of Ukraine to decide.

Will Putin respond to Pope’s call?

It is in moments like this, when political power fails, that religious power must rise to give real hope and solidarity to people in crisis, regardless of their race or religion.

For religion to stay meaningful and relevant, it has a vital role to play in ensuring that politicians contribute to the development of peace and economic prosperity for their people, including their neighbors, and not resort to taking unilateral actions when challenged.

What this means for Ukrainians is that they must start taking their votes more seriously in electing a president who will not trivialize its deep domestic divide or go clowning around with its powerful neighbors.

For Putin, he will have to come to terms with the Pope’s call for peace by scaling down on his military presence in Ukraine and respecting the full sovereignty of Ukraine as a nation, if he wants the global community to respect Russia’s own sovereignty and help them thrive as a nation.

The call for peace also serves as a solemn reminder that the growth in nuclear proliferation by superpowers is getting excessively dangerous and it is time for governments around the world to be scrutinized more diligently before a desperate head of state unilaterally triggers some nuclear warheads and sends us all into the abyss of hell.