Ukraine: Latest Cease-Fire Holds for Now

NEWS ANALYSIS: War divides — regions, religions, countries, alliances and, sometimes, even families.

A member of the German Bundeswehr's 371st Armored Infantry Battalion looks through binoculaurs during a media event at the battalion's base on March 10 in Marienberg, Germany. NATO member states and many European nations are enhancing their military abilities as a reaction to Russian intervention in Ukraine.
A member of the German Bundeswehr's 371st Armored Infantry Battalion looks through binoculaurs during a media event at the battalion's base on March 10 in Marienberg, Germany. NATO member states and many European nations are enhancing their military abilities as a reaction to Russian intervention in Ukraine. (photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

ROME — When Pope Francis met on Feb. 20 with the Catholic bishops of Ukraine at the conclusion of their weeklong ad limina visit, he warned them, both the Greek Catholics and the Latin Catholics, not to politicize the Church in the heat of their country’s crisis.

In a discourse made public by the Vatican, the Holy Father told them, “I know the historical problems that have marked your land and are still present in the collective memory. They are questions that, in part, have a political basis and to which you are not called to give a direct response.”

The Pope instead advised the clerics to focus on “human dramas that await your direct and positive contribution,” adding, “What is important in such circumstances is to listen carefully to the voices that come from the land, where the people live who are entrusted to your pastoral care.”

The Pope’s analysis focused on the suffering of the entire Ukrainian population, under severe stress from a bankrupt economy, endemic corruption and a humanitarian crisis caused by war, which has displaced approximately 2 million people in less than a year and killed, according to official statistics, more than 6,000 people, mostly civilians.

Nowhere in his remarks did the Holy Father mention Russia or speculate on the scope or nature of the war. He appealed for all parties to observe the mid-February cease-fire, known as Minsk II, and to implement the conditions required for it to hold.

Although the text is addressed to the country’s bishops’ conference, Pope Francis held three separate meetings with bishops representing Ukraine: the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), led by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, 44; a smaller delegation of Roman Catholic bishops led by Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki, 53; and the sole Ruthenian Catholic bishop, Bishop Milan Sisak, 62.


Divisions Among Christians

The Holy Father’s message also indicates a rift within Church leadership: “[R]egarding relations among you, brothers in the episcopate … it hurts me, personally, to hear that there are misunderstandings and wounds. There is need of a doctor, and he is Jesus Christ, whom you both serve with generosity and your whole heart.”

What divides the Catholic Church in Ukraine, which represents about 10% of the population, predominantly in the western part of the country?

Certain disputes exist over Church properties and which faith group — the UGCC or the Latin Catholics — should have them, Archbishop Mokrzycki has said.

But those matters are less important than a divide in the way leaders of the UGCC and Archdiocese of Lviv of the Latins view the war, what precipitated it and how to respond to the conflict, according to sources in Ukraine and Rome.

At his general audience on Feb. 3, Pope Francis referred to “this horrible fratricidal violence,” adding, “Think: This is a war among Christians! You all share one baptism! You are fighting with Christians. Think about this scandal.”

The Holy Father’s remarks flowed from the fact that the Ukrainian war pits the western population of Orthodox and Catholic citizens against the Donbas region of 5 million, who are predominantly Russian-speaking Orthodox Christians.

His words echoed an observation heard from many Latin Catholics in Ukraine. Dominican Father Wojciech Surowka, for example, blamed the crisis on a “failure of our evangelization” of the country’s Christians in an interview with EWTN News.

Father Surowka, who directs the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Sciences in Kiev, explained, “If Christians on both sides kill each other, then we did not teach them well who Christ is. They absolutely do not understand the essence of Christianity. It’s our fault.”

But Ukraine Greek Catholic Archbishop Shevchuk sees the war as a foreign invasion. In a Feb. 20 interview with Zenit he said, “We do not have a civil war in Ukraine. We have an aggression of a foreign country against the Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian state.”

“We — the Ukrainian people — are the victims,” he added. “And according to holy Scripture, God is always with those who suffer unjustly. God is always with the victims.”

The young leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church consistently depicts the conflict in apocryphal terms. In a letter to the bishops’ conference of Germany, he described Ukraine as “sanctifying European values with blood.”

According to The Boston Globe, at a Feb. 23 press conference before returning to Ukraine, Archbishop Shevchuk said the Pope’s use of the word “fratricidal” to describe the Ukrainian conflict “reminded us of Soviet propaganda.”

According to the Italian journalist Sandro Magister, Ukrainian Catholics like Archbishop Shevchuk see themselves as “assaulted by Moscow and abandoned by Rome.”

On Feb. 23 in Kiev, the archbishop held a high-profile meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, at which the president thanked the cleric for his “position on Russia’s aggression [and] prayers for the Ukrainian state.”


Quieter Catholics

Far less public is the leading Latin Catholic prelate in Ukraine, Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki. According to Catholic leaders in the region, he is tremendously respected at the Vatican and among his brother bishops.

Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest, Romania, told the Register, “You can’t possibly know the Church’s view of events in Ukraine without learning what Archbishop Mokrzycki thinks.”

The Polish-born archbishop, known as particularly modest and soft-spoken, served as one of Pope St. John Paul II’s personal secretaries at the Vatican for nine years and was with him when he died nearly 10 years ago.

He also served as secretary to Pope Benedict XVI, and the Ukrainian Latin delegation met with the pope emeritus in the Vatican Gardens before they left Rome.

Following the ad limina visit, which the Vatican requires of bishops to report on the status of their dioceses every five years, Archbishop Mokrzycki emphasized Pope Francis’ constructive role in seeking peace for Ukraine through international channels and described the Church’s critical humanitarian role providing shelter, food and clothing to thousands of refugees regardless of religion.

Much like Pope Francis, the archbishop avoids any political speculation or statements regarding Russia, ideological clashes with other nations or the issues underlying the war.

As Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity, explained to the Register in an email exchange on the standoff between Ukraine and Russia: “I think that the language of war and conflict is out of place in the ecumenical era that has followed the Second Vatican Council.”



In an interview with the Ukrainian Religious Information Service on the overall status of the Latin Catholic Church in Ukraine, Archbishop Mokrzycki said it is “expanding, evolving. And we want to share this joy.” He also observed the national crisis has forged greater unity among Christians.

With regard to the problems Pope Francis alluded to, he explained, “In western Ukraine, there are no problems with the Orthodox Churches. We have some issues with the Greek Catholics that we want to solve. This only applies to some temples that we want to return, which the government had passed in the ’90s to the Greek Catholic Church.”

Interestingly, the archbishop seemed sanguine about the situation in Crimea, annexed by Russia in early 2014, observing, “We are relatively satisfied with the situation in Crimea. There, the community will be reregistered. But I know that FSB [Russian intelligence] is visiting our faithful and priests there, calls to talk. But it seems that we have already survived the difficult situation.”

Regarding Crimea, Archbishop Shevchuk, on the other hand, sounded an alarm. In December, he said, “There’s clearly no religious liberty already in Crimea and the occupied territories of the east, and I hope the international community will deploy its resources to restoring freedoms in the affected areas.”


German Leadership

One day after Pope Francis’ meeting with Ukrainian bishops, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew in to brief the Holy Father on the Feb. 12 cease-fire she helped negotiate in Minsk, Belarus, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and French President Francois Holland.

Merkel has emerged as the European leader most capable of negotiating a cease-fire in Ukraine because she has a long-standing relationship with Putin, a Germanophile who speaks fluent German.

Although Germany went along with U.S.-led financial sanctions against Russia for violating international law when it annexed Crimea last year, commentators, such as professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton University and New York University, contend Merkel has been disturbed to see the simultaneous collapse of the Ukrainian economy together with increased U.S. willingness to arm Ukraine against Russia and, thus, has redoubled her efforts to forge a cease-fire agreement.

The clash in perception is described in a March 6 Der Speigel article that describes increasing German suspicion that every time the Ukrainian situation approaches calm on Ukraine’s eastern border, U.S. representatives, including NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, amp up anti-Russia rhetoric.

On Feb. 25, for example, with the cease-fire holding, at congressional and Pentagon briefings, Breedlove declared Russia had more than 1,000 combat vehicles ready to strike Ukraine and stated, “It is getting worse every day” — despite German intelligence stating that there was no such imminent attack.

On the same day Breedlove gave his pessimistic report on Ukraine, U.S. tanks were rolling through Estonian streets on the border with Russia as part of a national show of strength for Estonia’s Independence Day.

This month, a U.S. warship has joined a NATO navel exercise, together with forces from Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey in the Black Sea, which borders Ukraine; Russia is also running air exercises in the region.

The Pentagon announced March 9 that 3,000 U.S. soldiers (bringing helicopters, tanks and vehicles with them) will deploy next week to Eastern Europe for three months of exercises with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.


Grim Intelligence Reports

Constanze Stelzenmuller, an authority on NATO and German foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, shared her sense that the situation is grim in Ukraine at a recent panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

She mentioned German media is reporting national intelligence agency estimates of fatalities in Ukraine as being closer to 50,000 dead, not the official statistic of 5,000, which underscores “how little we are engaging in the humanitarian issues.”

She confirmed there’s no doubt that Russian forces are involved in command-and-control roles with regard to the Ukrainian separatists, but said Germany believes (and she agrees) that, considering the Russian mindset, patient diplomacy is required, not political maneuvering.

The analyst pointed out that providing arms to Ukraine could escalate violence in the theater, not discourage it, in part because the central government does not entirely control the situation in Donbas because “some of the Ukrainian oligarchs have their own private armies” in Eastern Ukraine, which creates a more complex and less easy-to-control situation.

As U.S. engagement in Afghanistan demonstrates, it is difficult for external forces to know what they are dealing with when there are an array of local actors.

Stelzenmuller added, “Ukrainian oligarchs remind me of Afghan warlords, because you have a very fragile central government, struggling for legitimacy and control, struggling for state functionality, in the face of these wealthy warlords with armies that operate on their own account.”

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.