In an interview recorded last month by Swiss television and partially released on Saturday, March 9, Pope Francis urged Ukraine to “have the courage to raise the white flag and negotiate.” Francis’s advice comes in the third year of war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Russia gaining momentum on the battlefield and Ukraine both running low on ammunition and needing strategic weapons for her survival. 

“When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate,” the pope concluded. In his words, “negotiations are never a surrender.”   

Francis would have been two years old when Czechoslovakia and Poland were invaded (in March and September of 1939 respectively) by Nazi Germany, following the annexation in 1938 of Austria. Negotiation and appeasement was the air that the Allies breathed in the 1930s. This allowed Hitler, unchecked, to extend German territory through imperial policy. In September 1938, with Germany and Italy, Great Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement, by which Germany was permitted to occupy German-populated border regions of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home from Munich, extolling a “peace for our time” that supposedly had been assured. Hitler, of course, was undeterred. By March 1939 Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, thus making null and void the Munich Agreement. By September, Germany had invaded Poland and the British were at war. 

Only a year later the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg would be invaded, with occupation in literally a few weeks. And by June 1940, Paris was occupied. 

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The tragic nature of appeasement is such that negotiations are typically a surrender. There is such a thing as unjust peace. 

War and coercive force, classically speaking, have been justified for four principal reasons. According to just war moral reasoning, they are: (1) to defend against unjust aggression, (2) to recover what was wrongfully taken, (3) to protect the innocent, and (4) to punish evildoers. Peace, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries”; peace is “the work of justice” and entails safeguarding “the dignity of persons and peoples” (CCC 2304). 

As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has reiterated, any “peace negotiations” must be determined by the nation that has been invaded. Zelensky’s own peace plan, supported by virtually all Ukrainians, calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine and the restoration of its internationally-recognized territory. Just as the Second World War was justified in the Allies’ defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity against tyranny, Ukraine is deserving of support against the outrageous sociopolitical evil of a terrorist regime that is committed to her elimination. In this case, appeasement and “negotiation” are not the principled response to Russian tyranny and aggression. 

Equally telling during the interview with Pope Francis was the pontiff’s answer when asked about the war between Israel and Hamas. His response, remarkably, was that of moral equivalence:  “War is made by two, not one. The irresponsible ones are these two who wage war.” The pope did not distinguish between Hamas’s brutalities and Israel’s right to respond to and punish these genocidal violations of international law and human decency. Nor did he acknowledge that, since its inception, Hamas has been intent on destroying the state of Israel.  

European leaders’ reactions to Francis’s comments were unequivocal. Latvian president Edgars Rinkēvičs placed the issue in proper perspective: “One must not capitulate in the face of evil, one must fight it and defeat it, so that the evil raises the white flag and capitulates.” German ambassador to the Holy See Bernhard Kotsche, responding that Russia is the aggressor in the ongoing war, called on Moscow, not Ukraine, to end the war. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski similarly observed: “How about, for balance, encouraging Putin to have the courage to withdraw his army from Ukraine?” In that case, he said, “Peace would immediately ensue without the need for negotiations.” 

For his part, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba declared, “Our flag is a yellow and blue one. This is the flag by which we live, die, and prevail. We shall never raise any other flags.” “The strongest,” Kuleba emphasized, “is the one who, in the battle between good and evil, stands on the side of good rather than attempting to put them on the same footing and call it ‘negotiations.’” Kuleba expressed hope that the pope would visit Ukraine to show support for “over a million Ukrainian Catholics, over five million Greek-Catholics, all Christians, and all Ukrainians.” 

But perhaps the strongest criticism came from Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Shevchuk lamented that the pope’s recent statements were “deeply hurtful” and that Ukrainians perceived them “not only on a political and diplomatic level, but also on a spiritual level.” “One thing we know for sure is that if Ukraine is even partially conquered, God forbid, the frontier of death will expand.” And to any who are skeptical about the need to defend Ukraine, he declared: “Come to Ukraine and see! If any of you do not believe in the victory of Ukraine, perhaps it’s time to go to confession! It means that we have little trust in the living God present in the body of the Ukrainian people.” 

In this instance, war is made by one, not two parties. And “negotiations” that are intended to appease evil are always unjust and wrong.


In light of these prudent responses, let us be realistic: what would any sort of “negotiated” settlement between Ukraine and her invader look like? At bottom, it would be no “peace” treaty. Russia would not withdraw from any part of annexed territory, and it is doubtful that Russia would comply with any sort of “non-aggression pact” or agreement. After all, this is a war that has been going on since 2014, though in various phases. What’s more, the West would probably be forced to keep sanctions in place. 

The result, then, would be a frozen conflict, with Ukrainians still wishing to be liberated and Moscow still pursuing conquest. The chances of any reconstruction and “normalization” of Ukrainian society would be next to nil. The only way to end the war is to defeat Putin, the one who caused it and who has obliterated all conventions of international law. At this point, any talk of a “negotiated peace” is fruitless. Such negotiation can only result in an unjust peace, because to ignore Ukraine’s plight is to be inhumane and complicit in evil. By such isolationist logic, as former undersecretary at the Ministry of EU Affairs Selim Yenel has well noted, neither the Baltic states, nor Poland, nor any of the Eastern European NATO members that were part of the former Soviet bloc, deserved independence or protection against totalitarian aggression. 

As we enter the third year of the war, Western nations—with the U.S. in the lead—seem unwilling to get to the heart of the matter. Yes, Ukraine has miraculously survived, but this cannot be for long. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that a compromise with Russia is possible, but it is not. Vladimir Putin will not rest until Ukraine is either subjugated or eliminated. 

One can detect among some U.S. politicians and policymakers a renewal of pre-World War II isolationist thinking. In our day, those who hold this mindset are reluctant to work closely with our partners and allies, for example, NATO members. Such thinking downplays—or ignores—major global threats that are thought not to bear directly on U.S. security interests. Or it focuses only on China, failing to discern the policy priorities that link Ukraine, the Middle East, and Taiwan. As former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst argues, even those who properly view China as our most dangerous long-term adversary fail to understand that “stopping overt Russian aggression now is the best way to deter China’s aggression in the future.” 

The imperative of the U.S.’s immediate support of Ukraine—that is, providing her with the needed ammunition, equipment, and strategic weaponry to win the war and defend her own borders—is not merely a practical security matter (which it is). Nor is it mere charity. Rather, it is the moral thing to do. Few Americans are mindful of the security guarantees we gave Ukraine through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Four nations—Ukraine, the UK, the U.S., and the Russian Federation—signed this agreement, promising to respect Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” and, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, pledging to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” And should Ukraine “become a victim of an act of aggression,” they also promised “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action” for assistance. 

In this instance, war is made by one, not two parties. And “negotiations” that are intended to appease evil are always unjust and wrong. 

Image by Nikolay N. Antonov and licensed via Adobe Stock.