Pope Francis has said Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was “perhaps somehow provoked” as he recalled a conversation in the run-up to the war in which he was warned Nato was “barking at the gates of Russia”.
In an interview with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, conducted last month and published on Tuesday, the pontiff condemned the “ferocity and cruelty of the Russian troops” while warning against what he said was a fairytale perception of the conflict as good versus evil.
“We need to move away from the usual Little Red Riding Hood pattern, in that Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was the bad one,” he said. “Something global is emerging and the elements are very much entwined.”
Francis added that a couple of months before the war he met a head of state, who he did not identify but described as “a wise man who speaks little, a very wise man indeed … He told me that he was very worried about how Nato was moving. I asked him why, and he replied: ‘They are barking at the gates of Russia. They don’t understand that the Russians are imperial and can’t have any foreign power getting close to them.’”
He added: “We do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was, perhaps, somehow either provoked or not prevented.”
Shortly before the invasion, Vladimir Putin had demanded Nato rule out allowing Ukraine, which borders Russia, into the military alliance.
The pope said he was not “pro-Putin” and that it would be “simplistic and wrong to say such a thing”. He also said Russia had “miscalculated” the war. “It is also true that the Russians thought it would all be over in a week. They encountered a brave people, a people who are struggling to survive and who have a history of struggle.”
On Tuesday morning, the pontiff published a message saying the invasion of Ukraine was a violation of a country’s right to self-determination.
“The war in Ukraine has now been added to the regional wars that for years have taken a heavy toll of death and destruction,” he said in a message for the Roman Catholic church’s World Day of the Poor, which will be marked in November. “Yet here the situation is even more complex due to the direct intervention of a ‘superpower’ aimed at imposing its own will in violation of the principle of the self-determination of peoples.”
Meanwhile, he told La Civiltà Cattolica that he hoped to meet the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill, a close ally of Putin who supports the war in Ukraine, at an interreligious event in Kazakhstan in September.
Kirill scolded Francis after the pontiff urged him not to become the Kremlin’s “altar boy” in an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Kirill accused the pope of choosing an “incorrect tone” to convey his message, adding that such remarks would damage dialogue between the two churches.
The pair had been due to meet in Jerusalem in June but the trip was cancelled due to the war.