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Ukraine should not raise the white flag: a response to His Holiness the Pope

In an interview with a Swiss broadcaster, His Holiness Pope Francis, has been reported as saying that Ukraine “should have the courage of the white flag” and, facing the prospect of defeat in her war with Russia, should negotiate a peaceful resolution before more people die and things get even worse. These remarks were recorded last month but for reasons undisclosed have only just been released, yesterday 9 March 2024. It is assumed that these are still the views of His Holiness the Pope; but even if that is wrong, then they represent a philosophy towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine that requires response because it is fundamentally misconceived in several ways. Every respect is afforded to His Holiness the Pope in making these remarks; he is a widely admired religious leader across the globe and not just amongst Roman Catholics. But the fact that so senior and influential figure is reported to have made such remarks does necessitate a response.

The language used is extremely unfortunate. A “white flag” is the flag conventionally used on the battlefield to signify (unconditional) surrender and therefore it is not used to negotiate but to give in. And in the apparent failure to understand this distinction - between negotiating and surrendering - the Pope’s reported words reveal themselves to be barren of careful thought about the issues involved.

A number of points could be made. If Ukraine is at risk of defeat then negotiation is not an option; only surrender is. That is because if Russia knows she is going to win then she is not going to accept any negotiated terms and indeed that appears to be Russia’s position. Russia is not particularly interested in negotiating in the sense of the world that we imagine in the West, although she says that she is. What she is interested in doing is solidifying control over the territory she has occupied and then in seizing more territory in Ukraine and potentially in other countries in Eastern Europe, in stages, and what we in the West might imagine to be a negotiated solution with Russia would be nothing more than a capitulation, a legitimisation of what Russia has done so far and giving Russia an opportunity to regroup her forces and then press on further.

Therefore the Pope’s discussion of Ukraine’s defeat makes the prospects of negotiation that he apparently considers so valuable ever less likely, because what His Holiness does not apparently comprehend is that negotiation is a two-way process and Russia’s pretended interest in negotiating is not a permanent thing but part of a strategy to reassert herself as a global imperial superpower. That is what Russia is so dangerous.

Secondly the Pope’s desire to minimise the number of casualties is of course laudable but casualties are an inevitable consequence of any war and wars once started have their own dynamics. They cannot just be stopped as though it is a matter of switching a button and everything is frozen and the peace negotiations begin. Instead we are now faced with different political dynamics in Ukraine and Moscow that are fundamentally inconsistent. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian Presidents have any domestic political room for manoeuvre to negotiate within parameters acceptable to the other. Russia’s and Ukraine’s negotiating demands are both maximalist and inconsistent. This is common in the “stagnation” period of civil conflicts and it is likely to continue for some time until dramatic changes take place in terms of the external forces applying to the protagonists and the region in general. In other words, it will take some monumental external change - such as EU membership for Ukraine or the insertion of NATO troops into Ukrainian theatre - for the war to end. Until then, the continuation of loss of blood and treasure is inevitable because the war isn’t really moving in any direction and neither party has an incentive to resolve it, even if such a resolution could be made to hold (which in all likelihood it cannot).

This leads into the third point, which is that the Pope is wrong to say that Ukraine is facing defeat. He just does not understand the facts on the battlefield which is that one of the world’s largest land armies, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is locked into a slow, grinding and relentless series of trench warfares with the Russian Armed Forces along the world’s largest front line. The Ukrainian positions are not about to crumble and the Russians are not about to overrun Ukraine. There will continue to be loss of life, yes; but Ukraine is nowhere near facing defeat. Therefore the Pope’s premise that defeat requires negotiation simply falls away. Even if there were point in negotiating (which for the reasons explained above there is not), the prospect of imminent defeat is a reason to do this.

Finally his Holiness seems to miss the point that this is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine, from which premise he infers that Russia as the superior power must inevitably prevail and therefore Ukraine should negotiate the best deal she can before she is inevitably overwhelmed; but rather an existential and ideological conflict between Russia and the West in which the West is supporting Ukraine and fighting this war with Ukraine, in practice even if not in theory, in which western ideals of international law and respect for Westphalian sovereignty are at stake. The reason people are dying on the battlefield is to defend modern civilised values. This is not just some trite regional conflict in which one party may have to give up territory in a negotiated resolution at the end of the day; but an existential conflict between the West and Russian imperialism. Ukraine cannot lose. She must not lose. We must fight on until she prevails, by hot war or cold, for decades if that is what is necessary - as it was with the first Cold War.

With all respect to His Holiness the Pope, who hails from a country a long way from Russian military theatre and who may not therefore appreciate the overt territorial ambitions of aggressive Russian imperialism, these comments were ill-advised. The Pope’s comments about the importance of human life are to be widely admired. His translation of those universally held values into clumsy political remarks about the conduct of this most essential of wars was erroneous, and this is one area of global politics in which it might be better for the Pope more rigorously to adhere to the distinction between church and state.


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