ROME – A leading Italian journalist has floated the possibility that Pope Francis’s personal envoy for the war in Ukraine may be poised to play a role in the return of Ukrainian children forcibly removed by Russian forces, suggesting that such a breakthrough would amount to an historical accomplishment for papal diplomacy.

“The image of thousands and thousands of children who, for the merit of Pope Francis, are returned to their families will enter, we’re certain, in the history books,” wrote veteran political commentator Paolo Mieli in a Sept. 17 essay for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record.

Mieli was reacting to recent comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the effect that Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, tapped by Francis in May as his personal representative on the Ukraine conflict, soon will make a return trip to Moscow.

“The efforts of the Vatican, whose envoy is going to come again, are continuing,” Lavrov said Friday during a roundtable discussion with ambassadors from 35 countries in Moscow.

“We are ready to meet with everyone, we are ready to talk to everyone,” Lavrov said.

The fact that it was Lavrov in person who made the announcement has been interpreted by many observers to imply that if Zuppi does indeed return to Moscow, this time he’ll meet directly with Lavrov and other senior officials.

When Zuppi made his first visit to the Russian capital in late June, he was able to encounter only relatively minor officials, including an advisor to President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

The session with Lvova-Belova was nevertheless considered significant, in part because she’s presently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for her role in the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children, but also because the meeting suggested Moscow might be willing to consider returning at least some of those children as a goodwill gesture.

Estimates of the number of Ukrainian children who’ve been removed from the eastern part of the country by Russian forces vary widely, from as many as 700,000 to perhaps around 250,000. That high-end estimate would include not only children deported since Russian invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but since Russia first occupied territories in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014.

In some cases, those children have been naturalized as Russian citizens and adopted into Russian families, creating obstacles to their eventual return to their families in Ukraine.

Moscow repeatedly has insisted the children were removed to protect them from the fighting in the area, including aerial bombardments, but those explanations have been rejected by Ukrainian authorities and human rights groups who have described the forced deportations as a war crime.

Mieli speculated that Zuppi may have received pledges of some sort of concession from the Russian authorities.

“It seems that Zuppi obtained a promise to return to Ukraine some part, though how many isn’t clear, of the kidnapped children,” Mieli wrote. “That’s a commitment, of course, which would have had to be authorized by Putin.”

Mieli noted that a columnist for Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, where Zuppi is the president, recently asserted that “the cloth of peace” which the pope’s envoy has been “patiently weaving for more than two months … is beginning to bear fruit.”

Though the immediate reference of that comment was Zuppi’s visit last week to Beijing and his meeting with a senior Chinese official, Mieli interpreted it to imply as well that a breakthrough with Russia is considered imminent.

“If Avvenire writes that a maturation is underway, it’s fairly likely that this time Zuppi will obtain a homecoming for these children, or at least a good number of them,” he wrote.

Such a result, Mieli wrote, would be a major diplomatic accomplishment. On the other hand, he warned, the lack of any concrete result would risk backlash.

“If the meeting between Zuppi and Lavrov ends in nothing more than a chat, however animated by good intentions, at least on the part of the cardinal, the disappointment would be great … truly, very great,” he wrote.