ROSARIO, Argentina — According to Major Archbishop Svatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Russia’s growing military presence around Ukraine is mostly about escalation of the conflict “between Russia and the Western world, particularly the U.S.”
According to the prelate, “We have reached the culmination of a dangerous military escalation and aggression against Ukraine,” insisting that the country actually has been under attack by Russia for the past eight years.
“The escalation we are witnessing today is not simply a continuation of the war in Donbass, or a consequence of the annexation of Crimea,” he said on Friday. “We are seeing an escalation of conflict between Russia and the Western world, particularly the U.S.”
Shevchuk considers Ukraine to be a pawn in the entire global landscape of the crisis. However, he says that Ukraine’s historical and the geographical position make it the nation most “exposed. We are on the frontline.”
“The Ukrainian crisis is not just a problem for Ukrainians,” he warned. “It has consequences on the whole world, for the European Union, the United States, and the NATO member countries.”
Shevchuk spoke during an online press conference organized by the papal charitable agency Aid to the Church in Need.
“War is the worst answer to problems,” he said, pointing out that Ukrainian’s hope today lies in prayer and the support of the international community, so that an escalation of the war is avoided.
“We are witnessing with our own eyes a true idolatry of violence rising up in the world,” he said. “We, as Christians, must say out loud, ‘no’ to military action as a solution to problems. Only dialogue, cooperation, and solidarity can help us overcome all kinds of difficulties and crises.”
In 2011, after the resignation of his predecessor, Shevchuk became the youngest bishop to lead the largest of the 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome. He studied at the Don Bosco Center for Philosophy and Theological Studies in Buenos Aires, where he became close to then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis.
The two have met several times in Rome, and the Ukrainian felt confident enough to correct the Argentinian when, early in his pontificate, he spoke of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “fratricidal war.” Ukrainians regard it not as a civil conflict but a foreign invasion.
Russia invaded the country after pro-democracy and pro-European Union protesters toppled the government of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014. The “Revolution of Dignity” had strong support from Shevchuk and the Greek Catholic Church.
The overthrow led to a rapid escalation of the crisis, with the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the declaration of independence from Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the country.
The ensuing violence in the conflict in eastern Ukraine between separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has since killed more than 14,000 people and forced an estimated 1.5 million to become internally displaced.
By that Christmas, Russia had 100,000 troops and military equipment along three key regions of its border with Ukraine, sparking concerns. Diplomatic efforts are ongoing in a bid to defuse the possible crisis, though many countries, including the U.S. and the EU, have already pledged military support for Ukraine.
Archbishop Visvaldos Kulbokas, papal representative to Ukraine, said that Pope Francis is following the situation with “concern,” though said he was unable to give further details on the diplomatic steps being taken by the Holy See.
However, the nuncio did stress the value of prayer, “for the conversion of hearts, especially for politicians and militiamen.”
Shevchuk added, “Although Ukrainians by majority are Orthodox, Pope Francis is the most important moral authority in the world. Every word of his for the Ukrainian situation, spoken at the Angelus or on other occasions, is very important for us.”
“Our people are very attentive to every word the Holy Father addresses to ‘Dear Ukraine’ and to the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” he said. “But what Ukrainians are waiting most for from the Pope is his visit to Ukraine. The possibility of his visit is our highest expectation, and we pray that one day this trip will be realized.”
Insisting on the way of war not being a solution to the current crisis, Shevchuk proposed three answers to the situation, from a “religious” and not a political point of view, the first two of which were prayer and “solidarity with those in need,” particularly with the often elderly and poor population on the eastern border of Donbass.
“The third response asks us to be, as Christians, preachers of hope,” he said. “We believe that God is with us. We must have this light and be heralds of good news to people who are afraid, they are disoriented, they are hungry, they are cold.”