KIEV, Ukraine — Since Ukrainian Christmas on Jan. 7, hellish scenes of cruel death have become routine in the eastern Donbass region on the Russian border.
On Jan. 25, Pope Francis’ first words before praying the Angelus concerned Ukraine. The Holy Father said, “I follow with deep concern the escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine, which continues to cause many casualties among the civilian population. … I renew a heartfelt appeal so that efforts for dialogue can resume and an end to all hostilities” occurs.
Over the last few weeks, the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian forces battled back and forth for control of the Donetsk International Airport, renovated in 2012 at a cost of $875 million. The contest is symbolic, since the airport has been destroyed.
Pro-Russian rebels, on the offensive, publicly vowed to take more territory for what they call the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
Living conditions are miserable in eastern Ukraine. Many towns and villages have no electricity or hot water. The Kiev government stopped paying pensions and public-sector wages to millions of Donbass residents last November as a way of pressuring locals to turn against the separatists.
A heartbreaking account by Reuters described a psychiatric hospital without heat, running water, medicine or sufficient staff. Meals were cooked over an open fire outside. Some 50 patients have died since the war began.
Despite the obvious humanitarian crisis — estimates say 659,000 to 921,000 internally displaced people have fled the war zone, and almost 500,000 have taken temporary residence in Russia, according to the U.N. refugee agency — the two sides, Ukraine and Russia, seem farther apart than ever.
Leaders from both countries used the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month to trade blame: President Petro Poroshenko demanded Russia withdraw an estimated 9,000 troops currently on Ukrainian territory, remove heavy weapons and close the border.
Holding a piece of the yellow bus in which 13 people died on Jan. 13, Poroshenko referred to “Russian terror,” linking it to the attack against the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. (The Russian Foreign Ministry already accused the Ukrainian side of shelling the bus.)
In Brussels, NATO’s supreme allied commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, confirmed the assessment that more Russian military equipment, including tanks and heavy artillery, has been amassed recently in Ukraine. He said NATO detected sophisticated electronic weapons systems associated with Russian forces that were giving separatist fighters a new edge on the ground.
Breedlove would not back up President Poroshenko’s estimate of how many Russian troops are physically in Ukraine. Two months ago, he said 250-300 Russian military specialists were there training and equipping separatists.
Moscow continues to say it has no ground troops in Ukraine.
European attempts to shepherd peace negotiations have not worked.
A meeting in Berlin on Jan. 21 between foreign ministers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine ended with little accomplished.
The group postponed a summit that was supposed to occur in Kazakhstan last month.
On the American side, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said the U.S. opposes Russian aggression and supports democracy based on “the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov countered that the president’s speech proves the U.S. seeks to “dominate the world” through confrontation and refusing the path of “constructive cooperation.”
Lavrov reports U.S.-Russian relations have “seriously deteriorated” over the last year.
Meanwhile, political leaders from both parties endorse more U.S. military involvement in Ukraine.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in Canada that the U.S. should provide military equipment and training to Ukraine, whose government is so broke it can’t afford enough uniforms or ammunition for its troops.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called, since last spring, for the U.S. to arm Ukraine’s military. On Jan. 27, McCain told the president “lethal military assistance” is necessary.
Church in Ukraine
On both sides of hostilities stand Christians, as Ukraine is a country of believers.
Most of the country is Orthodox, divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox-Moscow Patriarchate (MP), the Ukrainian Orthodox-Kiev Patriarchate and a small Autocephalous Orthodox group.
The Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), in full communion with the Holy See, represents about 15% of the population, mainly in western Ukraine, where it is a particularly strong force, spiritually, culturally and historically.
Church leaders are young and dynamic. With their congregations, they are strong promoters of a Ukraine integrated into the West. They have started new Ukrainian institutions, such as Ukrainian Catholic University, to promote Catholic values. The church has a strong charitable dimension.
On occasion, Russian Orthodox leaders in Moscow accuse the UGCC of contributing to conflict in Ukraine. Last October, at the synod on the family, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, 48, who functions as the Russian Church’s foreign minister, unexpectedly launched into an undiplomatic diatribe against the UGCC, the largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world, after calling for a united front in defending family values.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, 46, who was at the synod, told the Register he did not take the attack personally. He thinks Metropolitan Hilarion is compelled “institutionally” to make such a statement. He also believes the Russian Orthodox Church itself looks bad with such an aggressive move.
Churches in Ukraine help coordinate aid for the under-supplied Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers. A recent Christian Science Monitor article asserted the UGCC is supplying Ukrainian troops on the front with equipment as a way to “boost sway” and “win followers.”
Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, apostolic nuncio to Ukraine — and an American who grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D. — explained to the Register by phone from Kiev that this claim is deceptive.
“The government does not consistently provide soldiers with winter boots, with full uniforms or heavy coats or blankets or winter camouflage, so regular people themselves outfit their sons or brothers or husbands. The Church just does what it can to facilitate this essential support,” the nuncio said.
He added, “Over Christmas, the Church was proud to receive a gift from France of a used ambulance. They sent it to the front. Most support is to care for the wounded — first aid.”
As important evidence of ongoing interethnic collaboration throughout the crisis, Archbishop Gullickson pointed to the All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations: “We still have solidarity among all the heads of Churches and religious communities, including rabbis and imams. They have worked out ways to move as a group.”
The archbishop mentioned that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, was especially impressed by the dedication of this interfaith council when he visited Ukraine in December as a papal legate for the 25th anniversary of the UGCC’s revival (although the Moscow Orthodox branch did not participate in that meeting — for the first time).
Around the world, there are quiet efforts to protect ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox Christians in light of potential tension generated by the Ukraine crisis.
The two-year-old Urbi et Orbi Foundation, led by Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, is one such effort, dedicated to the idea that friendship and shared charitable projects between East and West can help build human networks toward Christian reunion.
To celebrate the foundation’s first retreat, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the United States, held a dinner in Washington in December.
Archbishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, flew in to speak, signaling Vatican appreciation for ecumenical efforts to keep open channels with the Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Farrell told the Register, “The Catholic Church’s commitment to the search for Christian unity is, as Pope St. John Paul II used to say, irrevocable. There is no turning back, because the unity of Christ’s disciples is his testament at the Last Supper.”
Asked, specifically, if relations with the Russian Orthodox are strained, the Irish archbishop responded, “We have an excellent, though challenging, theological dialogue with the Orthodox Churches all together, and we have continuing, friendly relations with all the Churches, including the Moscow Patriarchate.”
“We all know that the present difficulties around Ukraine have more to do with contingent political and geopolitical issues than with ecclesiology,” Archbishop Farrell said, adding, “It seems to me there is goodwill on all sides not to let the situation undermine the good relations between the Churches.”
A Close Eye
Msgr. Duarte da Cunha, secretary general of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, also attended the Urbi et Orbi retreat and talked to the Register. Speaking personally, he sees four aspects of the Ukrainian crisis currently shaping the Church’s thinking.
First, there’s a lack of verifiable data: “The real situation is not very well known. Why is there a conflict if no one wants the conflict? Who is behind those who want the separation of the Ukrainian territory?”
Second, “the Church does not want to forget those who are suffering. These are the people to keep in focus,” Msgr. da Cunha observed.
Third, “when we enter into the political part of the discussion, the Church is very prudent. We understand the importance of Russia for Europe. The fight should not be between Europe and Russia because Russia is also in Europe and has a European culture. I think we should be careful in this matter and avoid any idea that there are two worlds apart.”
Finally, “even though it seems clear that Ukraine is not able to get out of the situation alone, no solution can come from outside, not from Russia or the U.S. or the EU. It has to be their own,” concluded the Portuguese cleric.
Inside the Vatican
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, considered to be close to Vatican sources, published an unsigned front-page article in early December titled “The Outstretched Hand of Francis to Putin” giving insight into the Holy See’s thinking.
The Holy See “does not want to endorse a new Cold War,” reads the article. It “rejects the mantra that this clash is inevitable.”
The article says Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, exchange notes on subjects such as the defense of Christians and religious fundamentalism.
The challenge that Ukraine poses for the Holy See, Corriere della Sera reported, is to maintain dialogue with Russia while guaranteeing the sovereignty of Ukraine through a compromise solution.
The article’s final, memorable line reads, “For the West, Kiev is a kind of new watershed between democracies and dictatorships. For Francis, it’s a fragile bridge to prop up, not to be destroyed.”
Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent
and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.