Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Vatican’s peace envoy, began a visit to Russia on June 27 in a first such trip since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022.

Zuppi, who is the archbishop of Bologna as well as the President of the Episcopal Conference of Italy, met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who has been a vocal supporter of Putin’s war against Ukraine. The Patriarch and the Cardinal discussed the importance of “all the forces of the world uniting to prevent a major armed conflict,” Vatican News reported.

Cardinal Zuppi also met Moscow’s ombudswoman for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova, who has been issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with Putin, for overseeing the abduction of Ukrainian children.


“We discussed humanitarian issues related to military operations and the protection of children’s rights,” Lvova-Belova said. “I am sure that Christian love and mercy will help in dialogue and mutual understanding.”

According to Ukrainian officials, more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the beginning of the Kremlin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine and many were placed in institutions and foster homes. Such deportation is recognized as constituting an act of genocide.

Why would the Pope send someone to meet an accused kidnapper?

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Ukraine aid has been blocked in the US House of Representatives and the impasse has impacted Ukraine which has been suffering battlefield setbacks due to a lack of ammunition.

On June 6, the day that Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam, Cardinal Zuppi had met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

At the time, Zelensky appealed to the Cardinal to help secure the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war and the return the children deported to Russia.

During their meeting, however, Zelensky insisted that the only peace plan acceptable to Ukraine would be the 10-point plan Ukraine had proposed in 2022.

In response to the Vatican’s attempts at mediation in Moscow, Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak said: “Our position is clear, and we have expressed it very openly: we do not need any mediation, and that is because we have had bad experiences. We do not trust Russia.”


Who is the Pope’s envoy?

Cardinal Zuppi has long been involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has ties to Eastern churches – its headquarters in Rome celebrates mass with the Byzantine liturgy – and prides itself on ecumenism, helping the poor, and conflict resolution.

Zuppi was one of the four mediators of the two-year-long Rome-based peace negotiations that helped end the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. In recognition of his efforts, he was made an honorary citizen of that country.

The Italian Cardinal is seen to be in line with Pope Francis’ views on the Ukraine conflict.

But haven’t the Pope’s views been criticized in Ukraine?

Indeed, Pope Francis’ handling of Russia’s war on Ukraine – bending over backwards to appear neutral and unbiased – has been absolutely skewered in Ukraine.

At Good Friday celebrations in Rome the Vatican was criticized for putting a Russian and Ukrainian together during the Stations of the Cross procession.


The Pope on several occasions even intimated that NATO bears some responsibility for Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

In what may be viewed as a concession to Ukrainians, the Vatican has subtly adjusted its language to refer to a “just peace” rather than merely “peace.” This came in the wake of polemics in Italy about how the “peace movement” was actually a “surrender movement” and implicated the Vatican in an effort to reward Russian aggression.

The Vatican statement issued one day before the Moscow trip said that the cardinal’s mission during the two-day visit is to help “find ways to achieve a just peace.”

“The main purpose of the initiative is to encourage gestures of humanity, which can contribute to fostering a solution to the current tragic situation and find ways to achieve a just peace,” it said.

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Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to keep patiently explaining its position, with specific references to Russia’s various iniquities, or it risks looking intransigent.

Many westerners remain to be convinced of the rightness & necessity of ensuring Ukrainian victory, so if Kyiv is seen to have rejected both Africans & the Pope, the pro-Russian camp is strengthened in public opinion.

Most people haven’t heard of the Budapest Memorandum, & don’t know that the Minsk agreements couldn’t get off the ground because Russia maintained deniable forces in Ukraine. If it wants to hang onto fickle American support, Ukraine has to keep saying “We gave Russia our nuclear weapons, to prove we had no bad intentions. So they took advantage, & seized the Crimea without a fight. Our lack of resistance did not bring peace”, or “Russia used Crimea as a route in to the Donbas, where they murdered X & Y, & replaced them with Russians”.
President Zelensky also needs to tone down the moral accusations. He is absolutely right in what he says, but people who feel guilty & ashamed because they know they aren’t doing the right thing, are less likely to be generous. Since February 2022, Ukraine has needed control of its skies & long range weapons. It’s been given a ragbag of assorted kit which is hard to coordinate. We have to change that. The strategy has to include thinking about how best to talk to the West.