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Ukraine war: Jesuit economist invokes negotiations ‘or it will be total destruction’

A local resident stands in front of an apartment building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia ...
15 July 2022

In an interview with Vatican News, the French economist commented on Pope Francis’ appeal on Sunday, 3 July, in which he called for de-escalation over Ukraine, in order “to avoid disastrous outcomes which could lead to a new world conflict”, noting that “it is absolutely necessary to reach a truce and then peace”.

Vatican media offers a series of in-depth interviews analysing Pope Francis’ words on the war in Ukraine and possible solutions for negotiation: the opinions expressed by our interviewees cannot be attributed to the Holy See.

“I appeal to the Heads of Nations and International Organizations to react to the tendency to accentuate conflict and confrontation. The world needs peace. Not a peace based on the balance of weapons, on mutual fear.” The Ukrainian crisis “can still become a challenge for wise statesmen, capable of building, with dialogue, a better world for the new generations.” These are the words uttered by Pope Francis during the Angelus on Sunday, July 3, as he chose again to appeal for peace in Ukraine, and expressed his hope that we will move “from the strategies of political, economic and military power to a plan for global peace: no to a world divided among conflicting powers; yes to a world united among peoples and civilizations that respect each other.” The Pope’s has been one of the few voices raised in favour of peace and negotiations during these last months of fighting in the absence of effective diplomatic initiatives. It is a negotiation that seems impossible. We talked about the issue with the French Jesuit economist Gaël Giraud, Director of the Environmental Justice Program at Georgetown University and senior researcher at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) in Paris.

Father Giraud, why is it so difficult to reach a negotiation?

We see the military and verbal escalation of this war, the massacres that have taken place, the destruction of Ukrainian cities. But we must also take into account the existence of belligerent lobbies that don’t want the conflict to end, they don’t want a mediation process that would bring the Russian and Ukrainian governments to the same table to negotiate on a concrete project, because they are lobbies that are interested in rearmament and regime change in Moscow, that is, they want the end of Vladimir Putin. But thank God, the number of people who are calling for peace and believe in the absolute necessity of a negotiated settlement is growing. In the United States, an academic like Jeffrey Sachs has publicly advocated for a negotiated truce.

Who wants this war?

Let’s say that first and foremost, Russia, which has attacked Ukraine and commits war crimes. But the war has been in preparation since 2014 by those who want to use this war to overthrow Putin and bring Russia to its knees, even at the cost of turning Ukraine into a new Vietnam, leading it toward total destruction. In order to avoid this disastrous outcome, which could lead us to a new world conflict, it is absolutely necessary to negotiate, to reach a truce and then peace...

What negotiated solutions do you see possible?

The war today is at a turning point if it is true that Russian troops have captured the city of Lysychansk, which is strategic for a possible recapture of the north by Russia. I am convinced that the basis for serious negotiations is still the 2015 Minsk II agreements, which have never been respected by either Russia or Ukraine. The solution — this is my personal opinion — is the recognition of the independence of Donbas, including through a popular referendum attesting to the will of its inhabitants. The same applies to Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954 and where the population has already expressed itself in a referendum. Ukraine’s commitment to not seek NATO membership, both now and in the future, is also necessary.

But wouldn’t such a deal effectively sanction the victory of the Russian aggressor?

I fully understand that what I have said represents a problem for the territorial unity of Ukrainians. But I ask myself: what is the alternative and what price does it entail? The alternative is the total destruction of Ukraine, after a very long war, which would result in a devastated country that has been turned into a field of ruins, comparable to Chechnya in 2000. The consequences for everyone, but primarily for Ukrainians, would be far more devastating than those experienced so far in this absurd war in the heart of Europe.

Do you not believe that the current Russian government may implode, as we so often read in analyses produced by experts?

To believe that by overthrowing Putin Russia will become a more pro-Western country is wishful thinking, in my opinion. According to the most attentive analysts, Number Two at the Kremlin is Nikolai Patrushev. He would have been the one entrusted with power when Putin underwent surgery, and according to many observers, Patrushev is the one who could take Putin’s place in the future. Certainly with him at the helm, Russia will be no different; however, there is a risk that instability could occur, and instability always leads to new wars, not peace. To those who dream of regime change, I would advise caution and remind them to take a close look at recent history: look at Saddam Hussein or Gheddafi. I know the comparison is strong and the situations are very different because Russia is not Iraq or Libya, but think about what happened to those countries after the forced regime change.

Do you agree with sending heavy weapons and missiles to Ukraine under attack?

If I may express myself in all sincerity, let me say that I find this attitude a bit hypocritical, especially on the part of Europe. On the one hand, you send weapons to help the Ukrainian army fight the Russian army, on the other hand, you continue to buy Russian gas and oil by paying for it in rubles, and thus you finance the Kremlin-led war. For now, Germany does not intend to give up Russian gas, even in the long term. If the ecological transition, which would have been a great opportunity for the countries’ economies, had been seriously implemented, we would not be experiencing this dilemma.

But, as we stand, Russian gas is needed, and it is needed in particular by some European countries...

Yes, and we are still not taking into account what will be the consequences of this war in the near future. Ukraine is a country that can produce the grain that is needed to feed 600 million people, it has very important mineral deposits, and was part of the new Silk Road, one of the biggest infrastructure and investment plans to connect China to 67 other countries. We already see how the war is having consequences on North African countries that need that grain. There are many interests at stake. The continuation of the war will mean a food tragedy for parts of Africa and the continuation of global inflation, driven mainly by the lack of Russian oil. And this inflation may, in turn, cause a new financial crisis as Central Banks raise rates. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia are having a mixed effect. The chaos in the 1990s fuelled an anti-Western hatred of some Russians and brought Putin to power. Further Russian chaos will help neither peace nor Russian democracy. Do we really want Ukrainians to shed their blood for it?

We talked about Europe: what should it do?

It seems to me that we have to recognize the lack of strong and shared diplomatic initiatives on the part of Europe, which would have every interest in achieving peace as soon as possible. At least Germany, France and Italy should speak with one voice and propose a Marshall Plan for the sustainable reconstruction of Ukraine, according to the ecological transition. It must be a negotiated peace, that assures Russians about the future borders of NATO, which has not been a defensive alliance since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Quoting a Head of State he received in audience, the Pope mentioned “NATO’s barking” at Russia’s borders, words that triggered discussion. Aggression such as that which is underway never has justification. But if we don’t stop at the last few months, and take into consideration the contexts by looking at the history of the past 30 years, it helps us better understand the situation and warns against the repetition of mistakes and underestimations...

Russian aggression against Ukraine, a real war even if it has been called a “special military operation,” has no justification and the Pope has repeatedly condemned it. However, the words you quoted help us understand the context and remind us of what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is documented that in the early 1990s Western countries assured Moscow that the Atlantic Alliance would not expand to include the former Warsaw Pact satellite states. The failure to fulfill these verbal commitments offered Putin, who until then was considered an ally of the West, the opportunity to publicly announce — during the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 — his rejection of the unipolar world under U.S. dominance.

Pope Francis has called the arms race crazy. What does he think about it?

He is right, it is real madness, because it means bounding toward World War III. Even continuing this war means heading toward the Apocalypse, with hunger increasing in African countries and the risk of military escalation with nuclear weapons. The Pope, in his interview with the Telam news agency on Friday, July 1, also noted that the United Nations has not been heard during this conflict. And again, how can one blame him? Unfortunately, the United Nations is a fruit of the balances of World War II. It did nothing for the pandemic, it does nothing for this war. We need to rethink, together, a more just and multilateral system of international relations, where it is not only the powerful who make the decisions. As he said during the last Angelus: we need to move from the political, economic and military power strategies to a global peace plan. In my view, this requires the creation of international institutions that deal with our global commons: health, climate, biodiversity, peace.

By Andrea Tornielli