Interview: Vatican foreign minister on a year of war in Ukraine, the growing nuclear threat and relations with Putin
On the eve of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states and international organizations, granted an exclusive interview to America in which he described the war as in a “stalemate” situation but said that he does not believe that Russia can subjugate the Ukrainian people.”
He rejected President Putin’s narrative that the West had started the war and repeated Pope Francis’ call for an end to the conflict that, he said, must lead to “a just peace,” which “would mean that the Russians withdraw from the territory of Ukraine.” He spoke about the nuclear threat and the efforts of Pope Francis and the Holy See to try to bring an end to the war, but he admitted peace is nowhere on the horizon.
I spoke with Archbishop Gallagher at the Secretariat of State on Feb. 22, on his return from the Munich Security Conference where the war in Ukraine was the main focus of discussion. He spoke about the mood at the conference, which brought together heads of state, generals, intelligence chiefs and top diplomats from around the world, including Vice President Kamala Harris of the United States, who denounced “the crimes against humanity” committed by Russia in the war, and Anthony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state.
In an exclusive interview on the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Archbishop Paul Gallagher emphasizes the need to end the war but says that “a just peace” is not on the horizon.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
We are on the eve of the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine. How do you read the situation now?
I think in many ways it’s a situation of stalemate. Both sides are making maybe small gains, small losses. Some people talk about it as being very similar to the trench warfare of the World War I. I’m not a military expert, so I wouldn’t be able to confirm or deny that, but that’s the way it appears. Obviously, the anniversary has been the occasion for lots of gestures, visits and speeches, but the reality of the war will continue, and the war continues to provoke death and destruction. So as the Holy Father has been saying just today [at the general audience], we have to make every effort to try and find a way to end this war.
You have just returned from participating in the Munich Security Conference, attended by some of the world’s leaders. What have you taken away from that conference?
The conference, which was largely focused on the war in Ukraine, was an occasion for a show of unity, a show of support, a show of sympathy for Ukraine at this time. Perhaps because the other party, Russia, was missing, there wasn’t that exchange of ideas and positions and challenges which might have been useful in the circumstances, but it did bring home to me the seriousness of the situation, the dangers that Europe and the world are facing at the moment.
The anniversary has been the occasion for lots of gestures, visits and speeches, but the reality of the war will continue, and the war continues to provoke death and destruction.
It wasn’t a very optimistic experience because the gravity of the situation was very evident. Although the political leaders were united both in the condemnation of Russian aggression and in their commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, there was, I think, an underlying anxiety about what would be the price of this solidarity. Although people are committed and courageous and wanting to be very generous, at the same time, obviously, these leaders are also politicians, and they know that the public opinion in many countries in Europe is questioning this policy and is concerned. So there was this anxiety and preoccupation in that way, which I think is realistic.
On Feb. 21, President Putin gave a two-hour talk in which he blamed the West for starting the war and said it is a question of Russia’s survival. How do you read that narrative?
To say it is a question of the survival of Russia is a mistaken reading of the geopolitics of the last few years. I don’t really see that Russia was threatened before the 24th of February last year. Now you say, yes, it is threatened because this [Russian] aggression must be resisted and must be corrected.
But this idea of the West being determined on the downfall or the destruction of Russia, I think this is an erroneous reading of the situation as it was. That there was opposition to Russian policies and Russian strategies, maybe yes; but I don’t think anybody in the West was determined to neutralize Russia in that way. Now, of course, as they have done this terrible invasion, the situation is very different.
Putin in his speech said they are suspending their participation in the New START Treaty on nuclear arms. How do you read that?
I read that as being very bad news. There has been a tremendous erosion of the nuclear conventions and treaties in recent years, and this is just another nail, perhaps the last nail [in the coffin]. I think it means we have to try and resurrect the structure, the architecture of nuclear nonproliferation. It underlines the fact that a nuclear armed world is a dangerous world; it’s a more insecure world. For the Holy See, it renews our commitment to a vision of a non-nuclear armed world; we obviously accept the peaceful use of nuclear power.
There has been a tremendous erosion of the nuclear conventions and treaties in recent years, and this is just another nail, perhaps the last nail [in the coffin].
Do you fear that this war could turn into a nuclear conflict?
That danger is ever present. One hopes that it won’t come to that, but you can’t exclude it. I know that military strategists think it is highly unlikely, but that is not an absolute thing. It is one of the great worries, and one of the reasons why after this war, there will be some stock-taking, and people will realize that the world is more dangerous because of nuclear arms.
President Biden said in Kyiv on Feb. 20 that the United States was standing with Ukraine in the war “for as long as it takes.” Do you fear this will lead to an escalation in the conflict?
I don’t think committing to “as long as it takes” is necessarily an escalation. It is a political and a material commitment to supporting the Ukrainians. It is an indication that President Biden does believe it is going to be a long war, and there are many who share that view. I don’t think in itself it is escalatory.
Did you see any sign or even a glimmer of the possibility of peace at the Munich conference?
Little! I think that one of the Holy See’s roles, if you like, is to try to keep alive the hope, the dream of peace. But I think the focus, which is the Ukrainian focus, still remains on resistance, a [military] victory, and then we’ll think about peace. I don’t think there is the focus on peace without promoting a military solution at this stage.
I don’t think committing to “as long as it takes” is necessarily an escalation. It is a political and a material commitment to supporting the Ukrainians.
In a previous interview with me, you said the Holy See supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Is that still the position?
We support the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. At the same time, we recognize the liberty and the freedom of the Ukrainian people to their self-determination. That doesn’t mean that President Zelensky and his government cannot make the decisions to make peace, as that is their affair. But our position is that here and elsewhere, we would always defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.
Many analysts say this war has thrown the international order into the dustbin. Would you agree with that?
Yes! We have seen for a long time that what is called “the rules-based order in international affairs” has been compromised; now you keep the rules when the rules suit you, and you don’t feel bound by things to which you have committed yourself in the past, and that is extremely dangerous.
Is the Holy See continuing to engage in conversation with both sides of this war?
We continue having contacts. There has been a delegation of Ukrainian parliamentarians in [recent] days, and they have had meetings here in the Vatican. We continue contacts through the nuncio in Kyiv and through the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See here. As for the Russian part, we have the nuncio in Moscow, and we have contacts with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See here. It doesn’t go much beyond that in the Russian case, but there are some contacts.
I think the pope is saying, “I want to go to both parties to this conflict at a time when my visit would make a critical difference to resolving this terrible war.”
You visited Kyiv in May of last year. Do you have any plan to return there?
Not particularly, but I don’t exclude this if it would be useful. I do believe there should be some gesture maybe on the part of the Holy See, but at the moment nothing is fixed.
Pope Francis has said he would go to Kyiv only if he could also go to Moscow. Is that still the situation?
Yes, that the pope’s ideal scenario, but at the moment there’s really no talk of that. The Ukrainians continue to repeat their invitation, but there is no sign of an invitation from Moscow.
Do you think it is possible that he could go to Kyiv without going to Moscow?
I think it is possible, but whether it would be effective in the way that the pope wishes an eventual visit to be is another question. I don’t think he wants the visit to be just a gesture or a token, despite the fact that a visit to encourage the people, to show solidarity with them and sympathy for their sufferings has a value. I think the pope is saying, “I want to go to both parties to this conflict at a time when my visit would make a critical difference to resolving this terrible war”; and I think that at this moment, those conditions and that situation does not appear to exist.
A just peace would mean that the Russians withdraw from the territory of Ukraine.
I understand you have met President Putin? What impression did you get of the man?
I met him twice: when he came to meet the Holy Father in June 2015 and in July 2019. It was a very formal kind of meeting. He was very business-like, very well prepared, a serious sort of leader. It was really quite a superficial encounter on both occasions; the first time it was literally to shake hands, the second time he sat down and talked for a while.
What do you say to all those people who say we should go for peace, peace now, and stop the war, while others say that in reality this would be to the detriment of Ukraine because it would mean stop arming Ukraine.
To get peace now? Well, it depends on what the terms are. We are saying to work for peace and work for a just peace.
What is a just peace for you in this situation?
A just peace would mean that the Russians withdraw from the territory of Ukraine. Yes, peace would mean the end of hostilities, and peace involves a degree of negotiations to arrive at a treaty, or at least an armistice.
Most analysts would say that Putin has calculated badly. He’s now got NATO along the border of Finland, and Sweden and Norway will be in NATO, and so a greater threat. Is that how you see it, that he has calculated badly?
I accept the argument that he expected a comparatively quick victory at the beginning of the war. After that there have been various miscalculations, but I leave that to the generals to decide. Yes, I think there has been a miscalculation [by Putin]. I don’t think he ever dreamed that 12 months on he would still be fighting a war, even though, personally, I don’t believe that even if he had more military success that Russia can subjugate the Ukrainian people.