NEW YORK – Asked about Pope Francis’s “white flag” remarks in regard to Ukraine negotiating an end to its war with Russia, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Matt Miller said the department supports Ukraine defending itself and put the onus on Russia to allow a peaceful solution.

“Obviously, we support Ukraine’s right to defend itself,” Miller said in a March 11 press briefing, acknowledging that he has seen that the Vatican had since clarified Francis’s comments.

“We support [Ukraine’s] peace formula, and we would support its efforts to peacefully end this war but that requires Vladimir Putin to stop attacking, to stop trying to take and claim and hold Ukrainian territory and to agree to negotiations and he has so far not been willing to do so.”

In a papal interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI that was recorded on Feb. 2 and partly broadcasted on March 9, Francis was asked about the debate over whether or not Ukraine should raise a “white flag” and surrender, to which he said he believes “the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates.”

RELATED: Pope faces civil, ecclesial backlash for Ukraine ‘white flag’ remarks

The comments drew immediate backlash, leading the Vatican to issue a clarification. Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni issued a statement on March 9 explaining that the term “white flag” was first used by the interviewer, and therefore Francis repeated it “to indicate a cessation of hostilities and a truce reached with the courage of negotiations.”

“His hope is a diplomatic solution for a just and lasting peace,” Bruni said.

The five bishops of the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church responded to Francis’s remarks in a joint statement where they explained why surrendering to Russia is not an option.

“Ukrainians cannot surrender because surrender means death. The intentions of Putin and Russia are clear and explicit,” said the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church leaders, noting that along with Putin, 70 percent of the Russian population supports the war, as does Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The expressed objectives are articulated in concrete actions,” the March 10 statement continues.

The five bishops of the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church are: His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the major archbishop of Kyiv-Galicia, Ukraine; Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, Bishop Włodzimierz Juszczak of the Eparchy of Wrocław-Koszalin; Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, Apostolic Exarch in Germany and Scandinavia, and Bishop Josaphat Moshchych of Chernivsti.

In the statement, the church leaders made clear Ukrainians will continue to defend themselves.

“Notwithstanding the suggestions for the need for negotiations from representatives of different countries, including the Holy Father himself, Ukrainians will continue to defend freedom and dignity to achieve a peace that is just,” they said. “[Ukrainians] believe in freedom and God-given human dignity. They believe in truth, God’s truth. They are convinced that God’s truth will prevail.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg