Conflict in Ukraine: Pope’s Men on a Secret Mission?

May 08, 2023

On board the plane bringing him back to Rome from Budapest, Pope Francis revealed that the Holy See was working on a discreet mediation in an effort to resolve the bloody conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Sovereign Pontiff, however, refused to give more details for the time being.

“I am ready to do everything that has to be done for peace. Moreover, there is now a mission underway, but it’s not public yet. We’ll see how . . . when it’s public, I will tell it.” It was during the return flight after a three-day visit to Hungary, on April 30, 2023, that the successor spoke to the press on the subject of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“I think peace is always made by opening ways. You can never get peace through closure,” Pope Francis added. The Pontiff, if he wishes to remain discreet, nevertheless specified that he had discussed the war with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, as well as with the Metropolitan of Budapest, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country.

“During these talks, we didn't just talk about the rain and the good weather,” Francis quipped before justifying himself: “We talked about all these things in favor of peace: everyone has an interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

The arrival of the pope in Budapest is largely explained by the will of the Vatican diplomats to work effectively to resolve a deadly conflict which has been raging for more than a year at the gates of the 'Europe.

To do this, it was necessary to unblock a situation sometimes made complex by the pope himself: at the start of the special military intervention, the head of the Church appeared to be reluctant to name Russia as the aggressor, in part because he hoped that maintaining the Vatican's traditional neutrality might put it in a position to negotiate a ceasefire.

But pressed from all sides, the Roman pontiff gave in, harshly condemning Russia, clumsily comparing what is happening in Ukraine to the massacres perpetrated in the past by Stalin, and thus undermining all discreet diplomatic efforts.

The Secretariat of State was able to convince Pope Francis that Viktor Orban – two men who are completely opposed on the subject of migrants – was the man who is key on trying to find the way to peace: the Hungarian chief executive is at the head of a country which is a member of both NATO and the European Union.

His very measured position has often been at odds with the rest of a Europe: the strongman of Budapest has thus opposed sending of military aid to Ukraine and imposing international sanctions against Russia. Enough to keep the ear and the esteem of the master of the Kremlin. 

As the war enters its fifteenth month and rumors of a Ukrainian counter-offensive continue, the next few weeks will be crucial for Vatican diplomats to draw the outlines of a peace plan that many no longer want to believe.

Nevertheless, the parties did not rush to validate this mission that Pope Francis revealed, quite the contrary. Asked by the press, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS that they don't know of any peace mission from the Vatican: “We don't know anything.”

Ukraine has also claimed to be unaware of a Vatican peace mission. The tone was all the more lively since, from Kyiv, they assured that if this takes place, it is without the agreement of President Zelensky, according to a government source in a statement to CNN.

Finally, the former number two of the Russian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Hilarion, released a video to deny some rumors that he was dealing with the Pope in a secret plan.

And regarding the Holy See's press office, no statement has been published to clarify to what the Pope is referring when he speaks about “a mission” which is not yet public.