Pope Francis Uncovers the Hidden and Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine

Tuesday, 19 April 2016, 11:40
“If Europe does not take this seriously, the repercussions can be profound.”

On Divine Mercy Sunday, at the heart of the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis, at the end of the Mass in St. Peter’s Square, called all Catholics to offer their solidarity to the long-suffering millions in Ukraine who have been enduring a war for the last two years.

The pope announced his desire that a special collection be taken up in all Catholic churches, particularly in Europe, on Sunday, April 24, to alleviate the suffering.

Recently, Aleteia sat down with American-born Bishop Borys Gudziak, Eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, to find out more about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and what’s at stake.

Your Excellency, Pope Francis chose Divine Mercy Sunday to make a special appeal for Ukraine. What is the significance of this appeal?

This appeal has material and moral significance. The country has been impoverished and battered. Approximately 50 billion dollars of infrastructure has been destroyed, which is equivalent to the annual state budget of Ukraine.

In the Donbas area, in Eastern Ukraine, there has been rocket fire almost continually for two years. There have been hot battles, tank battles, with officially approximately 10,000 people killed. Tens of thousands have been injured and maimed, and hundreds of thousands suffer from post-traumatic shock.

The occupation by Russian armed troops is only about 5 percent of the territory, but the war has affected an estimated five million people, half of whom have become refugees from their homes, with half leaving the country. Two million have been internally displaced, going to the free parts of Ukraine, mostly in the East but throughout the whole country.

What are the causes of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?

The humanitarian crisis is a combination of several factors: for many years before the war, there was a corrupt government that embezzled 50 billion dollars, the equivalent of the annual national budget. There is a war going on, and two years ago the currency was devalued, which meant that people lost two thirds of the buying power of their salary. Now the average salary in Ukraine is about 150 euros (160 US dollars) per month, while the price of meat is at Western European levels, and many imported goods — technology, a telephone, other manufactured goods — might be even more expensive in Ukraine than they are in the West.

Much of Ukraine’s economy is in tatters because war is devastating. It affects confidence, investment stops, and there is capital flight among those who have money. And so a dire situation, undermined by corruption before, which led to the “Revolution of Dignity” and a change of regime, has been aggravated by the war and an economic crisis.

Tell us more about the war.

The war is a hybrid war. Historically, war is soldiers are on two fronts, and it’s clear who’s fighting whom — the blue fighting the gray. In hybrid war, soldiers might not wear insignia. They act not as soldiers. During the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers were presented as local volunteers. The international community, through satellite observation, knows that there are tens of thousands, at one point 80,000 Russian troops, in Ukraine or on Ukraine’s border. But nobody fully asserts there is a Russian invasion.

There are European and North American global sanctions against Russia, but at the same time trade and other kinds of relations continue. So there isn’t a declared war, and in that sense it’s hybrid in its identity; it’s hybrid in the nature of the military action, but it’s also hybrid in the way that a large part of the war is an information campaign, to which incredible resources are devoted, which lead many people in different countries, particularly Europe, to doubt the reality on the ground, to doubt whether there’s a war, to think that it is not an invasion but a civil war, to posit or accept that there’s a big far-right nationalist movement that is persecuting Russian speakers in Ukraine. The far-right parties in the last presidential election garnered less than two percent of the vote, whereas in France the far-right party has more than 20 percent and it’s analogous in many other countries.

Most citizens of Western Europe and the U.S. are under the impression that the war in Ukraine is over. Many leaders, including Church leaders and bishops, are not aware of the fact that there is a war, and they are completely uninformed about the nature of the humanitarian crisis. And this is what the Holy Father wants to bring to the attention of the entire Catholic community in Europe.

Surprise at the gravity of the situation is exactly what the Russians want. Imagine that your salary is, let’s say, $30,000 and for two years it drops to $10,000. The whole 45 million people of Ukraine have been impoverished severely. They are living off reserves, they are wearing out clothing, and in many places hospitals don’t have medicines; they don’t have anesthesia so operations are performed without anesthesia; diabetics don’t have insulin; roads are not being repaired; sometimes people die because ambulances can’t get to them. In general the infrastructure of the country has been undermined, and there’s a broad international campaign to denigrate the Ukrainian identity, because somebody whose identity is low or negative is not worth your attention or maybe even “deserves” what they are getting. That is the message that Russia has been trying to spread.

If Europe does not take this seriously, the repercussions can be profound.

There is a very sophisticated campaign to pay off journalists, in Italy for instance, and elsewhere, to work with politicians, to work with extreme parties that represent disgruntled people and destabilize Europe and the EU.

That same kind of work is being done in the body politic of Ukraine: infiltrating journalism, politics by collaborates who are remunerated for, in their place, creating mayhem. So through information, through destabilization, through hidden, not named and undeclared military campaigns, you have this phenomenon of hybrid war, which basically has same characteristics as terrorist activity. You don’t necessarily have to win big battles, but you can cripple and paralyze an opponent by inducing fear and undermining the viability of certain lifelines in a society. And that is what has been happening in Ukraine. There has been a systemic and systematic process to hit Ukrainian systems.

How have the Ukrainian people responded?

What is amazing is that Ukrainians have demonstrated such dignity in bearing this cross. They have accepted two million emigres or refugees (internally displaced people).

To put it into perspective: Ukraine had 45 million people with Crimea and with Donbass. Without annexed Crimea and without the occupied territories that’s about 40 million people. Two million people have been accepted by 40 million. Germany has accepted 1.1 million persons, but there are 80 million Germans. However, the government budget of Germany is 45 times bigger than that of Ukraine. Europe in general has accepted 2 million, so Germany has taken half. The joint state budgets of members of the European Union who have accepted the same number of refugees as Ukraine has is 400 times as big. So Ukraine’s resources have been stretched to the max.

Ukrainians in some ways are not being heard because they have demonstrated such fortitude in the face of such hardship. Ukraine risks being forgotten, and that is why the pope made this appeal, and it has great cultural and strategic significance. People in Ukraine were dying for the traditional values of Europe. And so this struggle for God-given human dignity in Ukraine has great import for Europe.

What is Russia’s endgame?

Russian’s endgame is an empire. Without Ukraine, Russia’s not an empire. Ukraine has some of the the most fertile land in the world. I think it has one quarter of the black earth of the world. It has the best earth in the world. It has a lot of water. It has a very highly educated population.

Ukraine is a country that is being destroyed, which the pope wants to save. This is not only a humanitarian effort to help the suffering. It is also an effort to increase moral awareness in Europe, because if there isn’t a moral reaction Putin will not be forced to stop military action, so it’s an action of peace as well.

People don’t realize that Ukraine is Europe. The center of Ukraine between East and West is in Western Ukraine. And Russians are trying to do everything, including war and annexation, to keep Ukraine from being more integrated into the European community. That’s what this is all about. Because freedom of the press, democratic process, due process before the law is deadly for authoritarianism. Ukrainians, through the revolution of dignity, moved in this direction, and so they were punished by annexation and war.

Diana Montagne, "Aleteia"




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