Weeks after Pope Francis bewildered the Ukrainian government with talk of a secret peace mission, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine met Francis in the Vatican on Saturday, part of a whirlwind visit to Rome that included talks with Italy’s president and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, both of whom offered their full support.
Mr. Zelensky’s discussions in Rome of war and peace come at a potentially pivotal moment in the fight against Russia, as Ukrainian forces make advances near the key eastern city of Bakhmut ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, and as Germany announced its largest military aid package for Ukraine since the war began, saying it would provide 2.7 billion euros worth of weapons.
Italy added to that momentum, with Ms. Meloni, who greeted Mr. Zelensky warmly before a 70-minute meeting, affirming her staunch support of Ukraine’s war effort.
“We bet on the victory of Ukraine,” said Ms. Meloni, appearing next to Mr. Zelensky, whom she called her “friend” in a news conference at the Chigi Palace, the seat of Italian government, after the meeting. “Our support will be at 360 degrees for all the time necessary, and beyond.”
She said Mr. Zelensky’s decision to begin his most recent sweep through Europe in Rome — he is expected to visit Germany on Sunday — showed that Italy was a “protagonist” in the support of Ukraine, a “victim of a brutal and unjust aggression on the part of the Russian Republic.” She said Italy would continue to supply Ukraine with aid, “also military.”
Mr. Zelensky, who on Twitter had called the visit important for his country’s “approaching victory,” thanked Italy repeatedly for its assistance.
But the centerpiece, and most delicate stop, of Mr. Zelensky’s trip to Rome came as his motorcade rumbled up St. Peter’s Square and he walked through a Vatican entrance flanked by Swiss Guards and, wearing his trademark sweatshirt, shook Francis’ hand before sitting across a desk for a 40-minute meeting.
The pope has sought to position himself as a potential peacemaker in a way that critics, including Ukrainian officials, argue is counterproductive to the achievement not only of Ukrainian victory, but also of a real and just peace.
To preserve the Vatican’s traditional neutrality, Francis, while consistently expressing sympathy for the suffering of Ukrainians, has made often confusing and contradictory remarks about whether he blames President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. After recently meeting with Russian sympathizers in Hungary, the pope has sought to thrust himself into the discussion about the war’s endgame, cryptically speaking about “a mission going on now, but it is not public yet” to bring peace, adding “when it is public I will talk about it.”
Both Russia and Ukraine, overwhelmingly Orthodox, and not Roman Catholic, countries, said they had no idea what the pope was talking about. But the Vatican insisted that a peace plan was in the works. It was not clear if Mr. Zelensky’s visit was part of that plan, or resulted from the Ukrainian leader’s efforts to explain in person why such talk could be detrimental.
“I asked to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement after the meeting with Francis, who gave him a bronze olive branch. “Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor. I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace. I proposed joining its implementation.”
Asked afterwards on Italian television whether Francis, who had sought to stake out an equidistant position between Ukraine and Russia, could be a peacemaker between him and Mr. Putin, Mr. Zelensky said “with all respect for His Holiness,” Ukraine did not need mediators because “you can’t do mediation with Putin.” He said victory on the battlefield was essential, and coming, and saw no point in speaking with Mr. Putin, who was clearly acting in bad faith. “What are we going to talk about?”
The Vatican said only that the two men discussed the war and Francis assured Mr. Zelensky of his “constant prayer” for Ukraine and its most vulnerable, and that both men agreed on the need for continued humanitarian aid.
On Saturday, even before Mr. Zelensky’s arrival, Francis who abhors the arms trade and who has shown deep anxiety about the suffering caused by the 15-month conflict, spoke about how the war had “brought unspeakable suffering and death.” He added in a tweet a prayer for “paths of encounter and dialogue that lead toward peace, and grant us the courage to trod them without hesitation.”
Mr. Zelensky and Francis met in Rome for an official visit in 2020 before the war. But since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the pope has declined various invitations from the Ukrainian government to meet Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv.
Francis has stated that, in his hopes of eventually playing the role of a negotiator, he wanted any visit to Ukraine to be in conjunction with a visit to Moscow, but Mr. Putin has repeatedly made it clear that he wanted no such visit.
Francis’ openness to dialogue has also, especially in the beginning of the war, drawn criticism for assuming a neutrality that critics considered morally questionable in the face of clear Russian aggression.
There was no such ambiguity from the Italian government.
Analysts expected Mr. Zelensky to ask for more Italian military support, especially for antiaircraft weapons.
“Today we discussed our cooperation, particularly security and military cooperation,” Mr. Zelensky said at a news conference. “There are very important decisions regarding the protection of our sky.”
Ms. Meloni has remained solid in her defense of Kyiv and she warned about a widespread “propaganda” effort by Russia to distract from the fact that it had invaded Ukraine. She said that Ukraine’s independence was the only acceptable outcome, and that peace could not be attained “with surrender” by Kyiv.
She called for the withdrawal of Russian forces and the end of its aggression, which she described as “dangerous for all of Europe and all the nations of the world.”
But Ms. Meloni, who appeared next to Pope Francis on Friday at an event about bolstering the Italian fertility rate, also had to manage her neighbor in the Vatican across the Tiber River, saying that she supported the efforts of the pope, adding, “we are very happy for this initiative.”
Mr. Zelensky, who thanked “Giorgia” for Italy’s role in defending Ukraine and accepting so many of its refugees.
But as Mr. Zelensky seeks to shore up concrete support of bullets, missiles and other arms for his country’s defense, he has also sought to win over the pope. Despite the pontiff having no divisions, as Stalin once famously noted, he still exercises a moral authority that Mr. Zelensky wants more clearly on his side.
Supporters of Ukraine worried that the pope’s eagerness to play a constructive role was making him a pawn of Mr. Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has sought to give religious legitimacy to the invasion.
Adding to Ukrainian concerns were the pope’s kind words for Aleksandr Avdeyev, for years the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, whom he has praised in the past. On the flight back from Budapest he called Mr. Avdeyev “a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured and balanced person.”
On Saturday, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported that Francis had met this past week with Mr. Avdeyev and may have given him a letter to take back to Mr. Putin. That close relationship vexed Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, who recently met with top Vatican officials to express Kyiv’s concerns that the Russian Orthodox Church was trying to gain “legitimacy” through its relationship with the Vatican for “obvious aims of Russian propaganda.”
The Vatican has actively tried to engage with both sides, working on prisoner releases and promising the Ukrainians that it would do what it could to help return children taken by Russia.
In May 2022, Francis wondered in an interview with the Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, whether “NATO barking at Russia’s doors” may have “facilitated” anger from the Kremlin that led to the invasion.
On Saturday, Ms. Meloni, at least, made it clear that the Italian government saw the blame resting fully on Russia, and that the only acceptable peace was one that met Ukraine’s conditions.
“We are not so hypocritical as to call peace,” she said, anything that “resembles an invasion.”