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The Pope's choice and the Versailles dilemma

Frederick Lauritzen

17th June 2022


Pope Francis has claimed that the Russian war in Ukraine has been provoked by forces external to Russia (14.6.22). The Vatican had already indicated that it considered Ukrainians and Russians in the same way. The via crucis easter procession in Rome’s Colosseum had two women, one from Ukraine, and one from Russia carrying a cross together (15.4.22). This symbolism was lost on Catholics from Eastern Europe. The Ukrainian Catholic church forbade the transmission of the event on Ukrainian TV. Catholics in Poland were outraged. The Ukrainian embassy in Rome presented a formal complaint to the Vatican.

The statement of the Pope coincides with the nomination of a new Russian orthodox metropolitan of Budapest, Hilarion Alfeyev, who had been head of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate from 2009 to 2022. Hungary is a Catholic country. While we remember that Viktor Orban is the controversial president of Hungary, we sometimes forget that Eduard Habsburg Lothringen has been Hungarian Ambassador to the Vatican since 2015. His Habsburg cousin Archduke William of Austria fought in Ukraine during world war I and II and wrote poetry in Ukrainian and died in a Soviet prison in 1948. The Habsburg family has always had an interest in Catholicism as well as Ukraine. The Pope thus has strengthened a direct channel with Moscow: Patriarch Kirill can now speak to Pope Francis though metropolitan Hilarion, President Orban and the Habsburg ambassador to the Holy See.


This opens the door to the question of the treatise of Versailles of 1919. Most who looked at the treatise after 1919 found and pointed out flaws in the different provisions which put an end to world war I. In the same way the settlement of Ukraine signed by Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, and Leonid Kravchuk on the 14th January 1994 has often been considered flawed. The US promised no expansion of NATO and Russia promised not to invade Ukraine. Promises have been broken. In the same way provisions of Versailles were broken or altered.


However, the key moment concerning the treatise of Versailles of 1919 came on the 1st September 1939. On that day German armed forces crossed the Polish border and began the invasion of Poland. From that day on, no one considered the flaws of Versailles any longer. The treatise was shelved within the footnotes of history ready to be studied by historians isolated from reality, but no longer relevant to politicians immersed in day to day administration. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022 has wiped off the map all treatises concerning Ukraine. That may have been one of Russia’s aims. Putin clearly indicated in his 9th May 2022 speech on Red Square the need for a new congress system. He meant something like the Congress of Vienna (1815) or the Potsdam Conference (1945) in which Russia participated as a victor and drew new lines across Europe.

Russia aims to be at the negotiating table with the US, NATO and Ukraine. China will probably be the decisive, even if apparently silent, observer at such a meeting. Putin has brought Russia back on the negotiating table for Ukraine’s future and removed the treatises agreed before the ‘special operation’. Each inch of land conquered by Russia in Ukraine will be exchanged for favourable conditions and contracts (oil, gas, minerals) for the Russian Federation.


It appears that the channel opened by Pope Francis is focusing on the balance established in the 90s between Ukraine and Russia. The Vatican will not be at the negotiating table, but the delay in condemning Russia will contribute to ever more favourable negotiating conditions for the Russians.

Invading another country is a breach of international law and war is a breach of religious morality. The need for peace is imperative, but war should be condemned first and foremost by religious authorities on humanitarian grounds and without ambiguity.

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