Amid reports of worsening fighting in the Donbass in recent weeks, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for a meeting to discuss the situation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to take place in the Vatican.
In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica published on Tuesday, Zelensky said that there was a need to meet to discuss the crisis in the east of his country, bemoaning the lack of “real direct communication” in previous years. He has since instructed officials to open channels with the Kremlin and claimed “things are getting to the stage where the meeting will take place.”
The Ukrainian leader pointed to the Holy See as an ideal host for the talks. As the world’s smallest sovereign state, Vatican City, an enclave within Italy, is administered by the Roman Catholic Church. Earlier this month, Pope Francis voiced concerns over the deployment of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, saying he viewed the developments with “great apprehension.”
“Please,” the Church’s top bishop added, “I hope that an increase of tensions is avoided, and that on the contrary, gestures are made capable of promoting reciprocal trust and favoring the reconciliation and peace which are so necessary and so desired.”
Despite this, the Vatican was reportedly surprised to read Zelensky’s comments to the press, as he “had not agreed his proposal” with Church officials in advance.
“For the Vatican’s diplomatic service, this came as a bit of a surprise,” a source in the Holy See told TASS later on Wednesday.
Responding to the proposals the same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Kiev’s overtures about the need to de-escalate the situation were welcome.
“Of course, this is an excellent declaration, and, of course, the aspiration for peace, it can and should be supported in every way,” Peskov told journalists.
“But,” the official cautioned, “the fact is that, if I understand correctly, Ukraine and Russia have, thank God, never fought, and we should probably talk not about peace between Ukraine and Russia, although Ukraine has considerably spoiled our bilateral relations.”
In recent days, Moscow has said that any talks about the future of the Donbass need to be held primarily between Kiev and the leaders of the two self-declared breakaway republics in Donetsk and Lugansk. “Russia is not a party to this conflict,” Peskov has said previously, insisting that “direct dialogue” was necessary between Zelensky’s representatives and leaders in Donbass.
On Monday, Zelensky hinted that he believes it is worth revisiting the Minsk agreements, which were signed in 2014 between Ukraine, Russia and Western observers. Designed to deliver a lasting peace settlement for the region, including a ceasefire and a ban on heavy weaponry, the accords have never been implemented, with both sides accusing each other of violating their terms.
However, Washington has since sought to push back on the suggestions. “We continue to support the Minsk agreements as the basis for a diplomatic settlement,” US officials said on Tuesday, while blaming Russia for the current impasse. The Kremlin has also reiterated its support for the peace deal.
Analysts had reported that tens of thousands of Russian troops had been deployed along the border with Ukraine in recent weeks, sparking fears in the West that Moscow might be close to ordering an invasion. Then, last week, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that a series of readiness tests had been concluded, and the soldiers would return to their usual bases. Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, he confirmed that the exercises had been a response to “threatening NATO activities” in the region.
Russia has warned of a potential humanitarian crisis in the Donbass if Kiev were to launch a full-scale offensive. In this case, Peskov said earlier this month, “no country in the world would stand aside. And all countries, including Russia, would take measures to prevent such [humanitarian] tragedies from happening again.”
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