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Zelensky says ‘peace plan must be Ukrainian’ after meeting Pope Francis

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Pope Francis on May 13, the first time since Russia’s invasion. (Video: Reuters)
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ROME — Any peace plan to end Russia’s war in Ukraine “must be Ukrainian,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday after meeting privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican — remarks that suggested there was some daylight between the two leaders over how to resolve the grinding conflict.

Zelensky is in Europe this weekend rallying allies ahead of a planned counteroffensive on the battlefield. He first met with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, both of whom reiterated Italy’s support for Ukraine.

Meloni has remained a staunch supporter of Kyiv, even as her far-right ruling coalition is divided on the issue and polls show a plurality of Italians are against sending weapons to Ukraine.

Zelensky thanked Meloni for her support — and in a statement following his meeting with the pope, he said he was grateful for Francis’s “personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.”

The two men met for 40 minutes on Saturday in their first tête-à-tête since Russia’s invasion. Francis, who has blamed both Russia and NATO for the war, has sought to position himself as a peace broker between Moscow and Kyiv.

But in an interview with Italy’s state broadcaster, Zelensky made clear that any role the Vatican plays in ending the war must be in service of Ukraine’s peace formula. Zelensky wants all Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia returned to Kyiv’s control.

“It was an honor to meet the pope, but the peace plan must be Ukrainian,” he told television channel Rai 1. “Pope Francis and I talked about it because we are interested in involving the Vatican and Italy.”

In his statement, Zelensky also said he spoke to the pope about the thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly deported to Russia — and asked the pontiff to condemn alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, “because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”

The Vatican gave a more muted account of the meeting, focusing instead on what it said was the pope’s “constant prayers” for an end to the war. The statement made no mention of peace talks or alleged Russian war crimes. Francis, it said, emphasized the importance of protecting “innocent victims of the conflict” in Ukraine.

A separate statement from the Holy See, however, said Zelensky and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s top diplomat, discussed “the need to continue efforts to achieve peace.”

Francis has frequently called for an end to the war since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, voicing solidarity with Ukrainians and recognizing their suffering. In August, he warned that fighting around Zaporizhzhia could lead to “nuclear disaster.”

He also told reporters in late April that there was “a mission going on now” to reach a peace deal “but it is not public yet.” “When it is public, I will talk about it,” he said.

The remarks appeared to take Moscow and Kyiv by surprise, with both governments denying they knew about the effort.

Some analysts question whether there is a viable mediator role for the Vatican in a part of the world dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Francis has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a meeting — so far, to no avail. And although the pope has sharpened his rhetoric during the course of the war, Ukrainians have at times accused Francis of creating false equivalencies.

The pope faced blowback in the first months after the invasion for not calling out Putin as the aggressor while criticizing Western sanctions and defense spending. In an interview with an Italian newspaper a year ago, he appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing the “barking of NATO at Russia’s door.”

In August, when a car bomb in a Moscow suburb killed Darya Dugina, a pro-war commentator and daughter of a prominent ultranationalist, Francis referred to her as an innocent victim of war — a comment that drew ire from Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Andrii Yurash, the ambassador, called the pope’s remarks “disappointing,” adding that a person “can’t speak in same categories about aggressor and victim, rapist and raped.”

Francis adopted a harder line in more recent months. In October, he appealed to Putin to “stop this spiral of violence and death.” In November, he compared the plight of Ukrainians with the “genocide artificially caused by Stalin” in the 1930s, when a Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine contributed to the death of more than 3 million people.

Marco Politi, a Francis biographer, said the pope has expressed “unambiguous” solidarity with Ukrainians. “But at the same time, the pope has a global vision that stems from the Vatican diplomatic tradition,” he said.

The pope believes the conflict has evolved into “a hybrid war between NATO and Russia — while of course keeping in mind that Putin is responsible,” he added.

For Francis, the war complicates a project that has formed a cornerstone of his papacy: reconciling the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which split nearly 1,000 years ago. In 2016, Francis met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Cuba as part of a rapprochement driven by shared concerns over violence against Christians in the Middle East.

But during the war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox leader has promoted theological justifications for Putin’s actions. In a Zoom call last May, Francis warned Kirill against becoming “Putin’s altar boy.”

Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador, said the Vatican has consistently said it wishes to be involved in any peace negotiation, part of why the pope wanted to keep “bridges” and “lines” open to Russia, the New York Times reported.

The pope has previously called on Zelensky to “be open” to serious peace proposals. Zelensky told Rai 1 on Saturday that he would not talk to Putin, because “Putin could take diplomatic steps, but believe me, a year later he would start killing again.”

Francis, meanwhile, believes a “new Helsinki” represents the best resolution to the conflict, Politi said, referring to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, signed by Western countries and the Soviet Union in a bid to de-escalate Cold War tensions in Europe and recognize the post-World War II status quo on the continent.

“I think that the Vatican is aware that it doesn’t have the power to impose any mediation” between Russia and Ukraine, Politi said. “It never had that in the past, and it doesn’t have it today. The Vatican makes itself available, should key players want to make use of the Vatican channel.”

Parker reported from Washington. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.