Zelensky meets with Pope Francis at Vatican, says he sought backing for Ukraine’s peace plan

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky puts his hand on his chest as he shakes hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Pope Francis meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a private audience at the Vatican on Saturday.
(Vatican News via Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he sought support for his peace plan from the pontiff, who in the past has offered to try to help end the war launched by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky held his hand over his heart and said it was a “great honor” to meet with the pope. Francis, using a cane for his knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before ushering him into a papal studio near the Vatican’s audience hall.

In a tweet after the 40-minute audience, Zelensky expressed gratitude to Francis for “his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.” He said he spoke with the pontiff “about the tens of thousands of deported [Ukrainian] children. We must make every effort to return them home.”


Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denis Shmyhal, asked the pope to help get the children returned from Russia to Ukraine. But the Vatican’s statement Saturday made no mention of the request.

Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation provoked by the ongoing war.”

“The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year,” the Vatican said, a reference to the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24, 2022.

Ukraine’s president says that launching his country’s highly anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces now would cost too many lives.

May 11, 2023

The meeting came as Russia’s Defense Ministry said Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles delivered to Ukraine by Britain last week damaged unspecified civilian enterprises in Luhansk province in Ukraine’s far east. Luhansk authorities separately said another missile strike hit the regional capital, wounding an elderly woman.

Two Russian Mi-8 helicopters and an Su-34 fighter-bomber crashed Saturday in Russia’s Bryansk region bordering Ukraine, state news agency Tass and a Telegram channel close to the Russian Defense Ministry reported; the newspaper Kommersant cited reports of two fighter planes crashing. The causes of the crashes were not immediately disclosed, but concern in Bryansk is growing about cross-border attacks from Ukraine.

If war is hell, there’s a credible case Bakhmut is its ninth circle, as Russia besieges the Ukrainian city that has symbolic, if not strategic, value for both sides.

April 11, 2023

Some Ukrainian units continue to push forward near Bakhmut, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces said Saturday, just a day after Ukrainian commanders said their troops recaptured territory at the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.


“Our soldiers are moving forward in some sectors of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram.

Zelensky, meanwhile, said he asked the pope to condemn Russian “crimes in Ukraine” because “there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”

“I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,’’ Zelensky said. Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope “knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, that is why it has to be Ukraine’s plan” to bring peace.

Zelensky’s 10-point plan would establish a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes. It would also create a European-Atlantic security architecture with guarantees for Ukraine, restore damaged power infrastructure and ensure safety at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia province.

Earlier in the day, Zelensky received from Italian officials pledges of open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine’s cherished aim to join the European Union.

“The message is clear and simple,” Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said after a meeting with Zelensky that lasted over an hour. “The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it’s the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.”


The prime minister, who staunchly supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond.”

Separately, Italian President Sergio Mattarella told Zelensky, “We are fully at your side.”

Presidential palace sources said Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue to support Ukraine militarily and financially, as well as with reconstruction and humanitarian aid.

Since the war began, Italy has contributed about $1.1 billion in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.

Ukrainian military commanders say their troops recaptured more territory from Russian forces in the long battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut

May 12, 2023

Zelensky is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule was not publicly announced because of security concerns.

At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Francis told reporters that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scenes peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.


The pontiff has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.

There has been speculation about whether the Vatican could play some mediating role. But in the Italian TV interview Saturday, Zelensky indicated mediation in general would be impossible. “You can’t mediate with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,’’ he said.

The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than $3 billion, including tanks, antiaircraft systems and ammunition.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wanted to show with the latest package of arms “that Germany is serious in its support” for Ukraine.

“Germany will provide all the help it can, as long as it takes,” he said.

In other developments, Russian shelling on Saturday wounded at least seven civilians in Ukraine’s south and northeast, regional Ukrainian officials said. Two women, a man and a teenage boy suffered wounds as Russian forces shelled the village of Khatnie, in the northeastern province of Kharkiv, the local prosecutor’s office said.

Russian forces on Friday and overnight resumed their shelling of the Kharkiv region, killing a civilian, Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said. Four civilians were killed over the same period in Donetsk province in the east, said Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko.


Shelling also hit the center of Huliaipole, a town in the southern province of Zaporizhzhia, and wounded a civilian, presidential aide Andriy Yermak said. Two other civilians were hurt in the village of Chornobaivka, in the neighboring Kherson region, another official said.

A “massive” Russian barrage overnight damaged an energy facility in Ukraine’s western Khmelnytskyi region, but didn’t affect the power supply, according to the Ukrainian Energy Ministry.

Frank Jordans in Berlin, Joanna Kozlowska in London and Gianfranco Stara in Rome contributed to this report.