NATO started Ukraine war: Is Pope Francis right?

Tony Gentile / Reuters

Fact Box

  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 as a collective entity to provide security from the Soviet Union after WWII. Since 1997, a total of 14 eastern European countries have been admitted to NATO. 
  • On May 3, 2022, in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis stated that NATO “barking” at Russia’s door “provoked” the start of the Ukraine-Russia war. The Pope had initially requested to meet President Vladimir Putin two weeks after the start of the war, but has been denied. 
  • Reuters reported that Ukrainian support to join the European Union jumped to 91% by the end of March while support to join NATO dropped to 68%. 
  • In an emergency United Nations General Assembly, 141 countries passed a nonbinding resolution on March 2, 2022, condemning Russia for invading Ukraine with only five countries in opposition: Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea.
  • Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, “unleashing airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending in troops and tanks” with condemnation coming from the US, Europe, South Korea, Australia, and other countries.

Siam (Yes)

While Pope Francis may have shocked some by claiming NATO's 'barking at Russia's door' may have sparked Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he has said this for good reason. The prospect of bringing Ukraine into NATO has been considered 'truly overreaching' by government leaders, as this desire has predictably been met with severe Russian aggression. Even before the 2014 Crimean crisis, Russians have always warned Ukraine joining NATO would jeopardize its security. There are already several nations belonging to NATO that border Russia: the Baltics, Poland, Turkey, and others. To add Ukraine to the list would have 'recklessly [ignored] what the Russians considered their own vital national interests,' or as Biden's CIA director, William Burns, said to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008, even Putin's sharpest critics view Ukraine joining NATO as 'a direct challenge to Russian interests.' Thus, the Russians' principal demand during this war is that Ukraine not join NATO, or the war would continue. 

While Pope Francis has seemingly assigned partial blame to NATO for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is not without his frequent criticism. He has made his criticisms in line with the foreign policy adopted by the Vatican, which aims to keep the door open for possible dialogues. Since March, Pope Francis has been trying to set up a meeting with Putin, but so far, all requests have been met with silence. Pope Francis is adamant that peace can come if he is able to fly to Moscow and speak with Putin. He recently stated, 'One cannot think that a free state can make war with another free state,' adding 'in Ukraine, it was others who caused the conflict.' NATO allies should hear the Pope's warning and ease up on the military exercises to prevent further escalation.

Andrew (No)

In making his bizarre statement that NATO may have 'provoked' Russian and thus 'facilitated' the Ukraine conflict, Pope Francis has fundamentally misunderstood what NATO is. As a mutual defense pact, NATO doesn't start any conflicts; it simply exists to ensure mutual defense aid for all member states should one be attacked. And despite aspirations from some within its borders, Ukraine is not a NATO member, hence why other NATO nations have not so far been drawn into open conflict with Russia. 

To be clear, the war in Ukraine is a conflict directly resulting from Russian aggression. Russia has invaded a sovereign state without provocation in a needless act of war; Pope Francis is wrong to cast the conflict otherwise.

While some will point to the mere suggestion that nations in central and Eastern Europe might desire to join NATO as a provocation, this simply underlines the constant Russian aggression that these nations feel. If these countries didn't feel threatened for their very existence by Russian hostility, they would have no need for expensive defense alliances. Every nation has the right to maintain its sovereignty, and Russia has challenged that fundamental right time and again. The simple existence of NATO, a defensive pact, is no justification for Russia to invade Ukraine.

Finally, Pope Francis is wrong to make this pronouncement as it excuses bad actors on the world stage. Simply disliking the defensive alliances of other nations does not give bullies like Vladimir Putin the right to invade. Russia had no provocation from NATO prior to beginning this needless conflict, and Pope Francis is wrong to suggest otherwise.

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