ROME – Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has condemned a Russian military offensive in Ukraine, calling the move tragic and issuing an appeal for negotiation and goodwill to prevail in preventing the outbreak of further violence.

Parolin opened his Feb. 24 message referring to an appeal made by Pope Francis at the end of his Wednesday general audience address, in which he announced that March 2, Ash Wednesday, would be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

“In light of today’s developments in the crisis in Ukraine, we see even more clearly the timeliness of the clear and heartfelt appeal that the Holy Father Francis made,” Parolin said, noting that the pope in his appeal voiced “great sorrow, anguish and concern” over the situation.

Francis also “urged all the parties involved to ‘refrain from any action that would cause even more suffering to the people, destabilizing coexistence between nations, and bringing international law into disrepute.’”

This appeal, Parolin said, “has taken on dramatic urgency after the start of Russian military operations on Ukrainian territory.”

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Russia launched a formal military assault on Ukraine, crossing into its borders and launching airstrikes in the country’s capital, Kyiv, and more than a dozen other cities in a bid to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked martial law and has encouraged citizens to stay indoors.

According to a new statement from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, its leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, is currently sheltering in an anti-aircraft bunker underneath the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv along with “many other people,” as the city endures bombing from the Russian army.

In his message, Parolin said “The tragic scenarios that everyone feared are becoming a reality,” but insisted that “there is still time for goodwill, there is still room for negotiation.”

“There is still a place for the exercise of a wisdom that can prevent the predominance of partisan interests, safeguard the legitimate aspirations of everyone, and spare the world from the folly and horrors of war,” he said.

Parolin stressed that as believers, “we do not lose hope for a glimmer of conscience on the part of those who hold in their hands the fortunes of the world. And we continue to pray and fast – as we shall do this coming Ash Wednesday – for peace in Ukraine and in the entire world.”

The military offensive comes after weeks of escalating tensions in which Russia amassed troops along its border with Ukraine and demanded that NATO forces withdraw from eastern Europe and that the organization pledge to never admit Ukraine or any other former Soviet nation as members to its membership.

Tensions between the two countries have been building steadily since Ukrainian citizens ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych in 2014. Russia then annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists who overtook large swaths of the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and conflict has been unfolding ever since.

Observers warned that an invasion was imminent after Putin’s declaration Monday of his formal recognition of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, causing international backlash and a swath of sanctions.

Humanitarian organizations such as Caritas International have warned that Ukraine is now headed for “a colossal humanitarian catastrophe.”

In a Feb. 24 statement, Tetiana Stawnychy, President of Caritas Ukraine, said, “It is impossible to believe that in the 21st century in the center of Europe people have to wake up at 5am from explosions and the sound of air raid sirens.”

So far in the past eight years of conflict, some 14,000 people have died, 34,000 others have been wounded, and around two million more have been displaced as people have fled the conflict zone.

Caritas International’s Secretary General Aloysius John said in a statement that “We cannot ignore the tragic humanitarian implications of this war.”

“It is the duty of the international community to protect the Ukrainian people and ensure their access to life-saving assistance,” he said.

International leaders have pledged to impose further sanctions against Russia in the wake of Thursday’s offensive.

United States President Joe Biden held meetings with G7 leaders Thursday to discuss countermeasures to Russia’s assault.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen