Pope Francis’ ‘White Flag’ Comment: Met by Criticism from Ukraine and Other Allies

Allied and Ukrainian officials criticized Pope Francis for stating Kyiv should have the “courage” to negotiate with Russia to end the war in a statement many have interpreted as a call on Ukraine to surrender.

Poland’s foreign minister, a vocal ally of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican both used analogies of World War II to condemn the remarks by the Pope. At the same time, a Ukrainian Christian church leader said Sunday that only the country’s steadfast resistance to Russian aggression had prevented civilians’ mass slaughter.

In an interview recorded last month with RSI, a Swiss broadcaster, and released partially on Saturday, Francis used the phrase “the courage of the white flag” as he argued that Ukraine, which is facing possible defense, should be open to internationally brokered peace talks.

“How about, for balance, encouraging Putin to have the courage to withdraw his army from Ukraine? Peace would immediately ensue without the need for negotiations,” said Radek Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, in a post on X.

Sikorski, in a separate post, drew parallels between those calling for negotiations while “denying (Ukraine) the means to defend itself” and leaders in Europe’s “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler before World War II.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, said it was “necessary to learn lessons” from the conflict. His X post appeared to compare the Pope’s comments to the Pope’s call for “talking with Hitler” while raising “a white flag to satisfy him.”

A Vatican spokesman later clarified that the Pope supported “a stop to hostilities (and) a truce achieved with the courage of negotiations” instead of an outright Ukrainian surrender.

Matteo Bruni said the journalist who interviewed Francis used the term “white flag” in the question that prompted the Pope’s controversial remarks.

“I think that the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people, has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates,” said Francis when asked to weigh in on the debate between those who maintain Ukraine should agree to peace talks and others who argue any negotiations would legitimize Moscow’s aggression.

Ukraine is firm on not engaging with Russia

Ukraine remains firm on not engaging with Russia directly on peace talks, and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said numerous times the initiative in peace negotiations must originate from the country that has been invaded.
During the war, Pope Francis has tried to keep the Vatican’s traditional diplomatic neutrality; however, that has often been accompanied by perceived sympathy with Russian rationale for their invasion of Ukraine, like when he noted that NATO was “barking at Russia’s door” with its expansion eastward.

While the Pope has spoken previously about the need for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv, the RSI interview appears to mark the first time when he publicly used terms like “defeated” or “white flag” while discussing the war.

Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said Sunday that surrender isn’t on the minds of Ukrainians.

“Ukraine is wounded but unconquered! Ukraine is exhausted, but it stands and will endure. It never crosses anyone’s mind to surrender. Even where there is fighting today: listen to our people in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, Kharkiv, Sumy,” said Shevchuk while meeting with Ukrainians in New York City. He mentioned regions that have been under heavy drone attacks and Russian artillery.

Shevchuk additionally spoke of Moscow’s aggression and brutality, referencing the town near Kyiv where aggression by Russia left hundreds of civilians dead in mass graves and the streets. He argued that if it weren’t for fierce resistance by Ukraine as Russian forces marched in the capital in February 2022, gruesome scenes seen in Buch would have been “just an introduction.”

During the Sunday Angelus prayer from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Pope said he was praying “for peace in the tormented Ukraine and the Hold Land.”

“Let the hostilities which cause immense suffering among the civilian population cease as soon as possible,” said Pope Francis.