When Pope Francis tweeted on May 1, “I ask everyone with political responsibility to remember two things: human dignity and the common good” to his 11 million-plus Twitter followers, he probably had Ukraine in mind.

So far, pleas for peace have been ignored by political actors on all sides of the crisis, with rhetoric almost entirely displacing reconciliation.

After meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 26, Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pointedly blamed Russia for “getting ready to start World War III because it intends to overrun Ukraine, both politically and militarily.” He then skipped the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II to return to his riven country.

Although the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and Catholic institutions such as the Ukrainian Catholic University were highly involved in demonstrations precipitating the collapse of President Viktor Yanukovitch’s government in late February, Vatican leaders have been watchful as the situation degenerates into civil war and fears grow of wider international conflict.

The national standoff turned global when the Russian government annexed a strategic peninsula, Crimea, in March, after local residents voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine.

Crimea had been part of Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, having been transferred, as an administrative unit, to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev on a whim. But Crimea was a Russian territory for centuries before.

The United States and European Union consider Russia’s move to be an act of aggression. Both responded with a variety of sanctions, mainly cancelling travel visas and freezing the assets of a short list of officials in Putin’s inner circle. The U.S. also banned future exports of some U.S. technology.

So far, the sanctions have not had a major impact. At home, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popular approval now stands at a three-year high of 80%.


No Shared Reality

The main question, with global implications, is whether Russia is behind “separatist” activism in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, where, since early April, men have put on ragtag uniforms, taken over administrative buildings, set up barricades and checkpoints and generally challenged the interim government in Kiev as a “junta” run by “fascists.” Some demand autonomy within the Ukrainian Republic; others want to join Russia.

In turn, the Kiev government calls pro-Russian protesters “terrorists” and has mobilized military units to defeat them — a strategy that has led, inevitably, to an escalating death toll over the last few weeks.

Neither side appears to be preoccupied with human dignity or the common good.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine is how disinformation — and distrust — can push a country to armed conflict, according to Keith Darden, associate professor at Washington’s American University, in several thoughtful essays, including “The War on Truth in Ukraine.”

Darden recounts how the unelected interim government in Kiev sees a Russian hand behind every challenge to its authority, while activists in regions more sympathetic to Russia, generally in the east and south, insist Western Europe and the U.S. are imposing their will through the new government in Kiev.

With no shared “basic reality,” both sides are easily manipulated by propaganda about the others, which undermines the ability to see either human dignity or common good.


Russian Agents?

On the key issue of Russian involvement, confusion is exemplified by The New York Times, which ran a photo story on April 20 directly linking eastern Ukrainian militiamen to the Russian military.

Less than two weeks later, the paper backed away from its analysis; “Behind the Masks in Ukraine, Many Faces of Rebellion” emphasizes that many of Kiev’s opponents are independent Ukrainian nationals with various ties to Russia, who don’t necessarily want to break up the nation — but who don’t trust the interim government as legitimate or representative.

The authors explain: “The rebels … [in Donetsk, an eastern province which was the deposed president’s home base] appear to be Ukrainians but, like many in the region, have deep ties to and affinity for Russia. They are veterans of the Soviet, Ukrainian or Russian Armies, and some have families on the other side of the border. Theirs is a tangled mix of identities and loyalties.“ Hardly puppets.

Top American military officers admit the situation in Ukraine is very fluid.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, supreme commander of NATO, told political leaders in Canada May 5 that he expected an invasion by Russia into eastern Ukraine until a week ago. Now, he thinks Russian goals will be achieved without direct military intervention.


Prayers for Ukraine

How should Catholics approach this disturbing situation?

Following Pope Francis, Catholic experts advise prayer; resist analysis that demonizes others; support reasonable solutions often grounded in local needs, not geo-political jockeying; and continue the dialogue.

First, we should pray for Ukraine. At Easter, in his urbi et orbi address, the Holy Father asked believers to pray for “initiatives that promote peace” in Ukraine.

On May 4, the Pope proposed that we “entrust to Our Lady the situation in Ukraine, where tensions continue unabated.”

He also prayed for the victims of violence, as the death toll of both pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians ratcheted up last week, including the burning alive and asphyxiation of at least 46 pro-Russians trapped in a building in flames in Odessa last Friday.

It’s unclear how the fire started, although it was probably caused by a hurled gasoline bomb, but it has inflamed public opinion in eastern Ukraine and Russia against the western side, which had pressured the Russian sympathizers into the building in the course of street fighting.

On May 6, Ukraine’s synod of Greek Catholic bishops released a letter urging prayer for the upcoming May 25 presidential elections, as well as public participation and truthfulness by candidates, parties and election administrators.

On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Ukraine to go ahead with these national elections, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — in Vienna for talks with European Union officials about how to restart diplomacy regarding the crisis — said elections should be postponed until the end of the year, considering the ongoing violence.


Skepticism About Rhetoric

Religious studies professor John Farina of George Mason University, editor in chief of the Paulist Press 65-volume Classics of Western Spirituality, thinks there should be caution about imbibing rhetoric that converts the Ukraine crisis into a new Cold War.

“St. John Paul did so much to improve the relationship between East and West, but it’s being undone,” he lamented. And you have to wonder why.”

Farina continued, “I spent a month in Russia in 2006 and met religious people, sincerely religious people. They were launching pro-life initiatives, putting a moratorium on abortion as a pro-family activity. I met Jesuits, Lutherans, Old Believers, Jewish groups, Hare Krishnas — a society really exploring religious identity.”

“So I’m troubled by the number of people in this country so quick to perpetuate Cold War language and images.”

And Farina argues it’s not correct for the U.S. government to “claim moral high ground” against Russia over Ukraine, given the muddled history of Ukraine-Russian relations and the fact that the current Ukrainian government resulted from a putsch.

“I favor localism,” he added. “People know their problems and know their own solutions.”

A Catholic foreign affairs expert on Capitol Hill (hesitant to be named since he has been in classified briefings) explains that the world is witnessing “a border between Russia and Ukraine being worked out. We have to remember that Kiev was ruled by Russia from the time of George Washington to George H.W. Bush.”

“The line between Russia and Ukraine was basically an administrative border, when, suddenly, the Soviet Union fell apart; then it became an international border. It should have been obvious if Ukraine as a body enters the European Union, with borders Russia dislikes, that Russia will be forced to act. So, in a sense, we, the West, forced Russia’s hand.”


Multiple Perspectives

This expert has sympathy for the Obama administration’s difficult task: “The important thing is that the administration is not giving military support to Ukraine, and the president is not putting harsh sanctions on Russia. That would be dangerous and foolish. Presumably, we don’t want a war over this. We can put harsh sanctions on weak countries, but not over great powers.”

In order to perceive a “common good” in any situation, one has to accept as legitimate multiple perspectives — something much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has not been willing to do vis-à-vis Russia in this case.

“Putin is portrayed as a demon,” the Capitol Hill foreign expert noted. “Putin is indeed a villain, but that doesn’t mean he is completely in the wrong in every case. In this case, he is largely in the wrong, but not completely. Even villains can have legitimate interests to protect.”

The interests President Putin sees himself protecting are the concerns of the substantial Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s southeast, a region known as Novorossiya (New Russia), including the hotspots of recent weeks, Donetsk province and Odessa.

In a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in March, only 22% of people in eastern Ukraine and 29% in the south favor joining the European Union, while 90% of western Ukraine would vote to join the EU.

Darden describes dramatic regional gaps like this one in an instructive article, “How to Save Ukraine: Why Russia Is Not the Real Problem.” He points out that the western region currently running the government in Kiev, granted legitimacy by Western Europe and the U.S., represents only 12% of the national population.

He sees the most relevant solution as constitutional change to increase the balance of regional power —acknowledging the common good over either side’s attempt to dominate the other.


Russian Orthodox Role

One of the dramatic regional differences in Ukraine that has, so far, not been inflamed is religious identity: The country’s Catholic population (mostly Greek Catholic, but also Latin-rite Catholic) lives in the west, while the majority of Ukrainians in the east are allied with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Thankfully, ROC Patriarch Kirill has been a force of moderation, emphasizing that violence and Christianity are irreconcilable.

On April 30, in Moscow, he reminded a broad range of Russian Orthodox leaders that the Church should remain above political interests, dedicated to reconciliation: “We must do the pastoral soul-caring work and reconcile people. But we must not in any case serve any of the political views, positions or concepts. In that case, the Church, remaining above fighting, will be able to preserve its peacekeeping potential,” reported Interfax, a Russian news agency.

According to Patriarch Kirill, the ROC should help ensure that “peace return to Ukrainian soil, that people find reconciliation, that law and order be restored, human rights guaranteed and human dignity not trampled underfoot.”

Yet some voices in the ROC, have recently expressed opinions that serve to inflame the Ukrainian situation, including claims by Metropolitan Hilarion that Eastern-rite Churches in communion with Rome, such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, are Catholicism’s “special project” for converting Orthodox souls — demonstrating that discord could easily be instigated.



In the face of potential tension between Catholics and Orthodox over Ukraine — which would undermine the construction of three popes — the selfless work of Byzantine-rite Catholics like Jack Figel becomes even more important.

Since 1997, inspired by Orientale Lumen, St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the value of the Eastern Church, Figel has organized annual Orientale Lumen conferences, bringing laypeople and experts together to explore Eastern Orthodoxy, Eastern Catholicism and the Latin-rite Church. He also publishes books and produces TV programs on this topic.

“I think, over the years, the Orientale Lumen conferences have had a positive influence. People who participate understand that we Eastern Catholics don’t have secret agendas. Our agenda is to try to be a bridge for Catholics and Orthodox to understand each other,” he told the Register.

He continued, “In places such as Ukraine, religion needs to play a part, but not a leadership role. We need to focus on the salvation of souls, not get involved in the political crisis. And always provide moral leadership with regard to non-violence and promoting dialogue.”

Pope Francis will have an extraordinary platform from which to promote the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue through his pilgrimage to the Holy Land later this month. A centerpiece of the trip is a meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew designed to highlight 50 years of increased collaboration with Christian Orthodoxy — a relationship under stress as a result of conflict in Ukraine.

In Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI met with the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, in a gesture that signaled an end to the Great Schism of 1054. Nothing since that historic meeting has rocked forward progress until now.

Ut unum sint (So that they may be one),” the trip’s motto, is the title of St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenism.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew plan to commemorate this historic meeting through a joint appearance in Jerusalem on May 25. Conflict in Ukraine will invariably be on their agenda.


United for Peace

Like the Pope and Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch Bartholomew has been speaking out against the current of conflict in Ukraine — and anyone who tries to draw the Church into this conflict.

Late last month in the Netherlands, at Utrecht’s old Catholic cathedral, the spiritual leader said, “The concept of the nation cannot become a determining factor of Church life or an axis of Church organization.”

“Whenever an Orthodox church succumbs to nationalist rhetoric and lends support to racial tendencies, it loses sight of the authentic theological principles and gives in to a fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy,” he said, according to his website in Istanbul.

So far, calm from the Christian leaders Francis, Bartholomew and Kirill is almost the only sense of unity that can be seen in this escalating tragedy, being driven by a narrow, political focus on historical score settling.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.