ROME – Recently, The Economist published a fascinating map of the world indicating which nations are anti-Russian in the Ukraine crisis and which either lean to the Russian position or wholly support it.
The good news for the pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian coalition is that it numbers 131 countries which, together, account for 70 percent of the world’s GDP, helping to explain why the sanctions on Moscow have been reasonably consequential for the Russian economy, even if they haven’t halted Putin’s war.
The bad news, however, is pretty bad.
According to The Economist, the countries opposing Russia account for only 36 percent of the world’s population. Meanwhile, those leaning towards Russia or expressing full-throated support are also about a third of the global population, with the remainder classified as “neutral.”
However, if you throw India into the pro-Russian camp, which by now seems reasonable given India’s pledge to increase purchases of Russian gas and oil to offset the losses Russia is suffering due to the Western sanctions, the pro-Moscow forces of the world rise to almost half of the global population at a stunning 3.809 billion people.
Yes, India has been somewhat cautious in its international positioning, but if you look at verbiage meant for domestic consumption, including coverage by state-run media, India, like China, clearly tilts toward the Russian position.
The pro-Russian forces include 11 nations in Africa (including Algeria and Sudan, both with populations nearing 50 million), collectively representing almost 400 million people, along with three nations in Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela), eight in Asia, and two in Europe – Russia itself, of course, along with its reliable ally Belarus.
In other words, when U.S. leaders claim that the “whole world” is united in support of Ukraine, that’s just flat-out false. It’s more accurate to say that the whole “Western world” is united, along with a smattering of other states.
Here’s how all this becomes relevant to Pope Francis’s efforts.
To the extent this war drags on, it certainly isn’t for lack of trying by Pope Francis and his team. The pontiff has dialed up his rhetoric on Ukraine, saying on Palm Sunday that Christ is crucified anew amid the “folly of war” and floating the idea of an Easter truce. He’s been photographed kissing a Ukrainian flag from Bucha, the site of horrific civilian massacres, and he’s dispatched two ambulances to Ukraine to help treat people suffering and ill as a result of the conflict.
Repeatedly senior Vatican diplomats have volunteered to help mediate an end to the war, though there aren’t any signs to date that the Russians are particularly interested in help from Rome.
That point, in turn, highlights the reason why Pope Francis has only extremely limited leverage in terms of making a difference in the Ukraine crisis.
Of the 24 nations identified as clearly pro-Russian in the current conflict, only three have a majority Catholic population – the Latin American nations of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Yet in Venezuela and Nicaragua, church/state relations are presently at a nadir, and Cuba has a decades-long history of listening to the pope only selectively.
Everywhere else, Catholics are a minority, and, in some cases, an oppressed minority, either by the state (China, North Korea) or by radical elements of the majority religious group (India, Syria, Myanmar, Pakistan and others.)
Granted, three of the African nations in the Russian camp – the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar – are places where Pope Francis has taken highly successful trips, and perhaps he could parlay some of that good will into a shift in attitude among those countries’ leadership.
Yet the two biggest nuts to crack in the pro-Russian coalition are China and India, and both are places where any pope has extremely limited options.
Yes, Francis’s Vatican has signed a deal with China over the appointment of bishops, which, in theory, leaves open a channel of communication, but the Vatican can’t even get regional Chinese authorities to stop harassing Christian churches, let alone persuading the national government to rethink its position on the defining global crisis of the day.
In any event, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and the pope’s top diplomat, recently said that despite Vatican hopes to tweak the deal with China, even basic communication has been rendered difficult by the ongoing COVID crisis.
As for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral base is with the BJP, a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in the country which sees Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, as a foreign import which threatens India’s national identity. Amid the “saffron wave” that Modi’s government represents, it’s unlikely that papal appeals will do much to move the needle in terms of India’s foreign policy.
Just this week, the BJP notched overwhelming victories in legislative council elections, claiming 33 out of 36 seats, which likely will give the party and its allies a two-thirds majority in India’s upper house of parliament.
Inside Russia itself, despite decades of outreach by the Vatican to the Russian Orthodox Church — indeed, despite what critics, including many Ukrainians, would see as a Vatican policy of placating the Russian Orthodox to an unreasonable degree — Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has become increasingly firm in his support for the Kremlin’s line on the war.
The sad reality is that as Pope Francis’s appeals for an end to the war become more urgent and pointed, the segment of the world’s population that most needs to hear it just isn’t disposed to listen.
Of course, no pope possesses a magic wand that can make all the world’s problems disappear. In the current conflict, however, the pope’s options seem even more limited than normal – which, for the famously stubborn Francis, may only serve to make him all the more determined to try.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
Join Our Telegram Group : Salvation & Prosperity