World War in a Different Form: Pope Francis on the War in Ukraine
Author: Dr. Hans- Ulrich Seidt
On January 9, 2023, Pope Francis declared to ambassadors accredited to the Vatican: “Today, the third world war is unfolding in a globalized world where the conflicts, although directly affecting only certain areas of the planet, involve basically everyone.” Diplomatic efforts to save the world from a further, incalculable escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war would be welcomed and supported by the Vatican.
Pope Francis had in the past decade repeatedly warned of a “third world war in parts”. But his warning went unheeded because the conflagration of the present does not correspond to the major conflicts of the past. There are no conscript mass armies fighting against each other and today’s economic war has little in common with the war economy of the 20th century. The world-wide interlinked war events are alien to the personal experiences and imaginations of the international public. It ignores the fact that the great powers of today have modified their potential for violence, calculated it precisely and use it covertly. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine and the devastation of large areas north of the Black Sea, the dimensions and escalation potential of this global power struggle have become apparent. In order to achieve political goals, violence is used in a modified form that is adapted to the time and situation. Clausewitz already knew: „War is a chameleon“!
The space and the forces
A year after the beginning of the war, the actual combat operations are still limited to the territory of Ukraine. But large parts of the northern hemisphere between Vancouver and Vladivostok are already involved in the dispute. The countries south of the conflict zone position themselves depending on their interests. They don’t want to get caught up in the great Northern dispute. Instead, they try to profit from it. This applies to BRICS countries such as the People’s Republic of China, India and Brazil, as well as to NATO member Turkey, Iran and also Israel, which otherwise emphatically seeks cooperation with the European-Atlantic alliance.
The Russian Federation is responsible for the outbreak of the war. On the orders of Vladimir Putin their troops crossed the borders of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The capital Kiev and large parts of the neighboring country were to be conquered in a blitzkrieg known as a “special operation”. After the rapid failure of this plan of attack, the leadership in Moscow has been caught up in a costly war of attrition. It must mobilize the reserves at its disposal from the Russian exclave around Kaliningrad to the Pacific coast of the Far East. But the Russian Federation, the largest territorial state on earth, is sparsely populated and its territory only slightly developed.
Ukraine also has great strategic depth. It extends far beyond national borders. Behind Kiev stands a coalition of the European Union, Great Britain and the two North American NATO members stretching across the Atlantic. Coalition deliberations take place at the level of defense ministers in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. It first met at the invitation and under the chairmanship of the US Secretary of Defense on German soil at the quasi-exterritorial US air base in Ramstein. On the group’s agenda are issues of jointly coordinated armaments, military aid and large-scale training of the Ukrainian army. At another level, there is talk of intelligence support for Kiev.
The Ukraine Defense Contact Group is pursuing the same war goals as Ukraine: withdrawal of all Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory including Crimea, recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by Moscow, Russian acceptance of Ukraine’s envisaged membership of NATO and the EU . Although the Ramstein Group is not considered a forum for determining political and strategic positions, their meetings would have been called a conseil de guerre in the 18th century, the classic epoch of coalition. The German Foreign Minister summed up this situation with astonishing frankness on January 24, 2023 before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: „We are fighting a war against Russia and not against each other!“
The moral factor
In their political statements and in their public relations work, those directly or indirectly involved in the Ukraine war argue with principles and values. Under the impression of the French Revolution and the coalition wars against Napoleon, Clausewitz counted the power of ideas among the strategically important immaterial forces and described them as the „moral factor“.
Moscow’s guiding principles can be summed up under the motto „Empire and Orthodoxy“. Even before the attack on Ukraine, after the Russian constitutional reform of 2020 and an article by Vladimir Putin in July 2021, it was clear that the Russian leadership was not ready and will probably not be ready in the future to tolerate, according to Putin’s own words, a political and ideological „anti-Russia“ in Ukraine. A western outpost and center of attraction between the Carpathians and the Donbass is viewed in the Kremlin as part of a long-term strategy to undermine the Russian Federation. To the Russian population, Ukraine’s westward turn is, therefore, presented as the manipulated, unilateral cancelling of a community of destiny that has grown over centuries, even over a millennium. For the latter, Putin advances historical and religious-historical arguments. It is irrelevant to their assessment whether they are presented by a coolly calculating, agnostic intelligence officer or by a politician who actually feels connected to the Russian Orthodox Church. In any case, the theses of Great Russian historiography, the memory of the Great Patriotic War and the asserted defense of orthodoxy against unrestrained Western liberalism should serve as justifications for the attack on the neighboring country and as a source of inspiration for the Russian people and its army.
But these ideas are particular and limited in their domestic and international scope. The Russian Federation is a multiethnic country. Do the Muslims of Tatarstan want to die for the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate? Are the Cossack-colonized Buryats and Yakuts of Siberia interested in the history of Kiev, the supposed „mother of Russian cities“? The mood outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg is difficult to assess, opinion polls and press reports should be read with caution. But at least by the opposite side Moscow’s ideology is taken seriously. One of their most prominent masterminds, the Carl Schmitt adept Alexander Dugin, was the target of an assassination attempt in 2022 that killed his daughter. On social media, uniformed gunmen chanted Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turanian slogans calling on the Muslims of the Russian Federation to rebel against Moscow and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov: „Long live Turan!“
Kiev’s government and the Euro-Atlantic coalition give fundamentally different reasons for the dispute with Moscow. They argue normatively and with universal values. The battlefields of eastern Ukraine are about the right to self-determination, about freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These principles are named as indispensable foundations for conflict resolution and the subsequent peace order. However, the appeal to Kant’s philosophical universalism, classically formulated in „Perpetual Peace“, overlooks the simple fact that the Ukrainian army does not fight for universal values, but for the survival of the nation. For example, the Azov regiment volunteers defended the city of Mariupol for weeks under a flag reminiscent of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Their bitter struggle against overwhelming Russian superiority proved that in contemporary conflicts the persuasive power of group-specific ideas and interests, in the case of Mariupol Ukrainian nationalism, can still be reckoned with.
A new war doctrine
In the past, the interests of religious and ethnic groups had prompted major powers to pursue their own strategy publicly based on overriding principles. The assassination attempt in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists in 1914 triggered the fatal mistakes that led to the First World War. That is why Pope Francis warned in June 2015 in the Bosnian capital of a „kind of third world war that will be waged piecemeal,“ adding: „In global communications, one perceives a climate of war.“
It is impressive how early the Pope and the Vatican’s diplomats perceived the drama of future developments. However, in 2015 there were already worrying indications of a worsening of the global situation. In 2014 Moscow had annexed Crimea. A brutal civil war was raging in Syria and the Islamic State was on the rise across the Fertile Crescent region. Hundreds of thousands fled via Turkey to Central Europe on the Balkan route. In Afghanistan, the failure of the Western intervention became apparent. In this situation, the Pope must have been concerned that the international strategic debate was moving away from questions of crisis prevention and conflict resolution. Especially in the U.S. it was instead turning to a dangerous topic, namely hybrid war.
The doctrine of hybrid war aims to deconstruct perceptions and interpretations of traditional images of war and with them their strategic containment. Instead, the fragments and individual parts of the well-known forms of war are to be combined in new, „hybrid“ forms. And that is exactly why Pope Francis warned in Sarajevo so vividly and urgently against a third world war „which will be fought in parts“. Only large powers with the appropriate resources and with global reach are capable of waging hybrid wars; because they require the carefully coordinated use of a wide range of physical and psychological coercive measures beyond the military instruments that have so far been normatively recorded and restricted.
Hybrid warfare includes intelligence operations, the covert deployment of special forces, the disruption of supply chains, the imposition, monitoring and enforcement of sanctions and, last but not least, the direct impact on the enemy’s public with the help of social media. With a „click“ of the mouse, messages and images are sent to millions of people around the world, a capability used by psychological warfare in a matter of seconds worldwide. „Time eats up space“ observed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when, following Clausewitz, they rethought war.
In 2013, two years before the Pope’s Sarajevo speech, Valery Gerasimov, the new chief of staff of the Russian Federation, introduced the theory of hybrid warfare into Russian military doctrine. In his first keynote address to the General Staff Academy he called it „non-linear warfare“. This approach was consistent with the ideas of President Putin and his intelligence community. The Russian military, trapped in traditional ways of thinking, viewed the consequences of the new doctrine with skepticism. Many generals rightly feared that, as in the U.S., the Russian defense budget would see a shift away from conventional armed forces to the instruments of hybrid or non-linear warfare.
Tools of hybrid war
When in 2015 the Pope warned of the new nature of world war, manifestations of hybrid warfare were already evident in the Middle East, Libya and Crimea. For example, General Gerasimov used Russian special units without national insignia to occupy the peninsula. And the Vatican had enough reason to pay particular attention to the increasing international deployment of irregular forces and its political consequences.
In 1997, the Blackwater company was founded in the U.S. and developed in the first decade of the 21st century into the largest private military company in the world. Its founder and longtime owner, Erik Prince, came from an influential Calvinist family with strong ties to the Republican Party. Under Donald Trump, Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education. Her brother abandoned his family’s Reformed tradition and became a Catholic. After his conversion Erik Prince joined the conservative wing of American Catholics. Whenever possible, he filled managerial positions in his company with practicing Catholics. Like Trump’s interim chief adviser Steve Bannon, Prince encouraged politicization and polarization within the American Catholic Church and supported high-profile critics of Pope Francis‘ pontificate. The money for Erik Prince’s social and political activities came also from large orders from the U.S. government under President George W. Bush. Blackwater was deployed in operations of hybrid warfare for the State Department, Pentagon and CIA in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Dissolved under President Barack Obama due to serious human rights violations in Iraq, Blackwater had to be transferred to a successor organization. Under the name Academi, it now belongs to the Constellis Group, one of the largest private security service providers in the world.
The Russian Federation copied the American model. Following Blackwater’s example, the Wagner Group was founded in St. Petersburg in 2014, a year after Valery Gerasimov introduced “nonlinear warfare” into Russian military doctrine. Wagner Group units are used as instruments of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare in Syria, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and, since 2022, also in Ukraine. Like Blackwater under Erik Prince, the Wagner group has close, informal contacts with the highest political leadership. Her boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Vladimir Putin have known each other from St. Petersburg since the wild decade of the Yeltsin years. However, unlike Prince, Prigozhin does not come from the upper class, but from the criminal underworld. But like his American role model, he strives to use religion as a „moral factor“ for his business. A statue of a Wagner fighter stands next to a newly built Orthodox church in front of a Wagner Group training center near Krasnodar. In full gear he puts his arm protectively around a child. The style corresponds to the pathos of the Stalinist monuments in Berlin’s Tiergarten and Treptower Park and cannot hide the fact that criminals recruited in prisons and penal camps fight in Ukraine under the skull and crossbones emblem of the Wagner group.
The Wagner Group’s deployment is only an example of the hybrid warfare that Pope Francis warned against in 2015. And isn’t his Sarajevo statement that “a climate of war” prevails in global communication confirmed? In any case, the message conveyed to the diplomatic corps in his New Year’s address in January 2023 is clear: World War III is already underway. It still only devastates parts of the planet, but its consequences affect all of humanity.
Looking to the future, worrying scenarios are not only evident in Europe, where a further escalation is foreseeable in the Russian-Ukrainian war. They range from covert operations such as blowing up the two gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, after all an essential part of Germany’s strategic infrastructure, to tank battles and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In the Ukraine, an informal cessation of hostilities or a formal ceasefire are not in sight and would not bring peace in the long term: Despite silent weapons, a demarcation line remains a smoldering source of fire, as the Korean experience shows.
The Russian annexation of large parts of Ukraine is not conceivable as part of a political solution. It would not only seal Kiev’s military defeat, but also mean the second geostrategic failure of a Washington-led Euro-Atlantic coalition after the disastrous end of the intervention in Afghanistan. A complete withdrawal of Russian troops and the subsequent perspective of a membership of Ukraine in NATO and the EU would have comparable consequences for the Kremlin. Such an outcome would signal the blatant failure of Moscow’s policy and probably the beginning of a peaceful or violent dissolution of the Russian Federation. Years ago, President Putin declared that in the event of such a threat to the existence of the Russian state, he would regard nuclear weapons not only as an instrument of strategic deterrence, but also as a means of political de-escalation.
In view of such bleak prospects, it should come as no surprise that serious voices, including senior military officials and even U.S. government-affiliated research institutes such a RAND, seem to be in favor of attempting a negotiated diplomatic solution. However, the time has not yet come to seriously explore the chances of a compromise. They depend on the course and results of the Russian offensive at the end of the mud period. Nevertheless, in the hope of a political-diplomatic initiative in the second half of 2023, a climate change in communication would be desirable even today. Against the background of a public atmosphere determined by emotions, informal explorations, preliminary talks and serious negotiations are hardly imaginable. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that the Vatican would welcome and support any attempt to save the world from the incalculable dangers of World War III.
The article first appeared in a slightly abridged form in issue 3/2023 of the Catholic monthly magazine „Herder Correspondence“.