Pope Francis is suffering from acute knee pain and won’t preside over this week’s Ash Wednesday celebrations after his doctor ordered him to rest. Despite his health issues, the pope has launched efforts to mediate an end to the war in Ukraine.
Pope Francis will not be presiding over the customary mass for the start of Lent at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill this year.
The pope’s knee ailment also forced him to cancel travel plans for the first time in his papacy. Francis was scheduled to celebrate mass Sunday in Florence for the closing of a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region.
But knee pain has not stopped the Pope from repeatedly voicing his concern about the developments in Ukraine.
On Friday, he visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express those concerns in person.
The Pope has called for Ash Wednesday this week to serve as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.
His worries were voiced again Sunday when he said his “heart is broken” and called for arms to fall silent.
Referring to those in search of refuge as brothers and sisters, the pope made an impassioned appeal for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave Ukraine.
The Vatican has now said it is prepared to assist in any negotiation aimed at ending the war in the eastern European country. The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in interviews published in Italian newspapers Monday that the Vatican is offering to facilitate dialogue with Russia. He said there is always space for negotiation.
Earlier, the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, announced the pope would not travel after speaking to the Holy Father on the phone.
Bassetti said the pope had given his strong backing to the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting in Florence and had wanted to attend but the doctor recommended that he take a “period of greater rest” for his leg.
It remains unclear whether the pope’s current knee problem is linked to previous sciatica conditions that have forced him to cancel some of his public appearances in recent times and has also caused him to limp. Only last month, the 85-year-old pontiff complained of a pain in his leg, saying it was worse when he remained standing.
Pope Francis underwent colon surgery in July in what was considered his most serious health issue since he was elected head of the Catholic Church in March 2013. After spending 10 days in a hospital, he appeared to recover well and soon returned to his daily activities.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed Monday for the European Union to immediately admit Ukraine to the bloc, as the country battled a Russian invasion.
Zelenskyy posted photographs of himself on social media signing an application to join the 27-member nation EU. In a video, he said, “We appeal to the European Union for the urgent accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure.”
“We are grateful to our partners for being with us,” Zelenskyy said. “But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”
It usually takes years for any country to officially join the EU, part of a multi-step process that often requires nations to make reforms to reach EU standards.
The head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Sybiha, said on his official Facebook page that the documents requesting EU admission “are on the way to Brussels.”
The EU has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has offered military assistance to Kyiv as well as imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia and blocked Russian planes from EU skies.
Ukraine’s request comes after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews in an interview Sunday of Ukraine: “They are one of us, and we want them in.”
However, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, clarified Monday that the EU chief did not mean that Ukraine could join immediately.
He said Von der Leyen “specified that there is a process (for joining the EU). And I think that this is the important point.”
The application for Ukraine to join the EU, even if largely symbolic, is likely to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to bring Ukraine under its influence.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.
Russia’s future in the World Cup teetered on a knife-edge Monday after FIFA plans to allow them to play on neutral territory were dismissed as “unacceptable” by rivals, plunging the qualifying process for football’s showpiece event into chaos.
Governing body FIFA warned that they were considering the ultimate sanction against Russia as punishment for their bloody invasion of Ukraine.
However, after three days of silence, they stopped short and ordered Russia to play home internationals at neutral venues where their national flag and anthem would be banned.
Russian teams would be known as the Football Union of Russia.
FIFA said dialogue with other sports organizations to determine additional measures “including potential exclusion from competitions” would continue.
However, within minutes of the announcement, the Polish FA insisted they would not play Russia in a scheduled World Cup play-off, regardless of the venue.
“Today’s FIFA decision is totally unacceptable,” tweeted Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza.
“We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is.”
Poland is due to play in Moscow on March 24 with the winners to host either the Czech Republic or Sweden five days later.
The draw for the World Cup finals, to be staged in Qatar in November and December, is on April 1.
Sweden and the Czech Republic followed suit.
“We have previously made it known that we do not want to face Russia under these circumstances [following the invasion] and this remains the case until further notice,” said Swedish FA president Karl-Erik Nilsson.
‘Displeased’ with FIFA
He added he was “displeased” with FIFA’s decision.
The Czech FA added: “There will be no change in the Czech national team’s standpoint.”
In response, FIFA said in a statement that it had “taken good note of the positions expressed via social media by the Polish Football Association, the Football Association of the Czech Republic and the Swedish Football Association.”
“FIFA will remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together,” it said.
French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet led calls on Sunday for Russia to be kicked out of the World Cup.
“The world of sport, and especially football, cannot remain neutral. I certainly would not oppose the expulsion of Russia,” Le Graet told Le Parisien newspaper.
France are the World Cup holders after winning the 2018 tournament which was hosted by Russia.
The English FA said their national teams would not play any games against Russia “out of solidarity with Ukraine and to wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership.”
The Welsh FA said they too would join a boycott as it “stands in solidarity with Ukraine and feels an extreme amount of sadness and shock to the recent developments in the country.”
‘Football Stands Together’
European governing body UEFA on Friday stripped the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena on May 28 and switched it to the Stade de France in Paris.
At Wembley on Sunday, Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson carried flowers in Ukraine’s yellow and blue colors before kick-off in the League Cup final.
Both teams stood for a minute’s applause, while a scoreboard message in yellow and blue blazed “Football Stands Together” and Liverpool and Chelsea fans were seen with Ukraine flags.
One banner in blue and yellow read “You’ll never walk alone” in reference to Liverpool’s terrace anthem.
Chelsea also said they were “praying for peace” after owner Roman Abramovich’s decision to hand over control of the Premier League club.
The Russian-Israeli billionaire announced on Saturday that he was handing the “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the trustees of the club’s charitable foundation. But he will remain as owner.
There was no mention in his statement of the crisis in Ukraine.
Chelsea released a 24-word statement on their website Sunday but omitted any reference to Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin.
“The situation in Ukraine is horrific and devastating,” the statement said. “Chelsea FC’s thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine. Everyone at the club is praying for peace.”
It is understood that Abramovich, who allegedly has links to the Kremlin, took the decision to step aside in order to protect Chelsea from reputational damage as the war rages in Ukraine.
Sporting anger wasn’t just limited to football.
In Cairo, Ukraine on Sunday withdrew from the world fencing championships to avoid facing Russia, downing their swords and displaying protest signs saying “Stop Russia! Stop the war!” and “Save Ukraine! Save Europe.”
Swimming’s governing body FINA cancelled the world junior championships in Russia due to take place in August and said no other events will be held in the country “if this grave crisis continues.”
Swimming Australia on Monday welcomed the cancellation and said it would be boycotting all competitions in Russia.
Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting, leading uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era.
The Russian currency plunged about 30% against the U.S. dollar Monday after Western nations announced moves to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and to restrict Russia’s use of its massive foreign currency reserves. The exchange rate later recovered ground after swift action by Russia’s central bank.
People wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports in social media of long lines and machines running out.
Moscow’s department of public transport warned city residents over the weekend that they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to pay fares because VTB, one of the Russian banks facing sanctions, handles card payments in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.
A sharp devaluation of the ruble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian, economists and analysts said. Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket. Foreign travel would become more expensive as their rubles buy less currency abroad. And the deeper economic turmoil will come in the coming weeks if price shocks and supply-chain issues cause Russian factories to shut down due to lower demand.
“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at William & Mary in Virginia. “Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge. The only way to stop it will be heavy subsidization.”
The Russian government will have to step in to support declining industries, banks and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro, they may have to result to printing more rubles. It’s a move that could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.
The ruble slide recalled previous crises. The currency lost much of its value in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, with inflation and loss of value leading the government to lop three zeros off ruble notes in 1997. Then came a further drop after a 1998 financial crisis in which many depositors lost savings and yet another plunge in 2014 due to falling oil prices and sanctions imposed after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the ruble. It sharply raised its key interest rate Monday in a desperate attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks.
The bank hiked the benchmark rate to 20% from 9.5%. That followed a Western decision Sunday to freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves, an unprecedented move that could have devastating consequences for the country’s financial stability.
It was unclear exactly what share of Russia’s estimated $640 billion hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralyzed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it will be affected.
That dramatically raised pressure on the ruble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase rubles.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions that included a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves as “heavy,” but argued Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate the damage.”
The central bank ordered other measures to help banks cope with the crisis by infusing more cash into the financial system and easing restrictions for banking operations. At the same time, it temporarily barred non-residents from selling the government obligations to help ease the pressure on the ruble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.
The steps taken to support the ruble are themselves painful since raising interest rates can hold back growth by making it more expensive for companies to get credit.
The ruble sank about 30% against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. Earlier, it traded at a record low of 105.27 per dollar, down from about 84 per dollar late Friday, before recovering to 98.22.
Sanctions announced last week had taken the Russian currency to its lowest level against the dollar in history.
Belarusians voted Monday to allow the country to host nuclear weapons and Russian forces permanently, results showed, part of a package of constitutional reforms that also extended the rule of leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The referendum was held Sunday as the ex-Soviet country’s neighbor Ukraine is under attack from Russian troops and delegations from Moscow and Kyiv are expected to meet for talks on the Belarusian border.
Central Election Commission head Igor Karpenko said 65.16% of referendum participants voted in favor of the amendments and 10.07% voted against, Russian news agencies reported.
According to Karpenko, voter turnout stood at 78.63%.
To come into force, the amendments need to receive at least 50% of the vote with a turnout of over half the electorate.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, promised the referendum in the wake of historic protests against his disputed re-election in 2020.
By amending the constitution Lukashenko, 67, follows in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2020 oversaw a vote on constitutional changes that made it possible for him to remain in power until 2036.
The constitutional changes also grant immunity to former leaders for crimes committed during their term in office.
Russia is a key ally of Belarus and last week Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north.
Belarus inherited a number of Soviet nuclear warheads following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, which it then transferred to Russia.
Lukashenko first floated possible changes after a presidential vote in August 2020 sparked unprecedented demonstrations that were met with a brutal crackdown.
He claimed a sixth term in the vote and imprisoned leading opposition figures, while his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to seek refuge in neighboring Lithuania.
The amendments would reinstate presidential term limits — previously ditched by Lukashenko — to two five-year terms, but they would only apply to the next elected president.
Were Lukashenko to put himself forward as a candidate for re-election in 2025, he could remain in power for an additional 10 years.
Tikhanovskaya’s office in Lithuania has hit out at the vote, saying that a sweeping crackdown on any dissenting voices since the 2020 election made any real discussion of the proposals impossible.
Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, the scandal-plagued 2014 Winter Olympics and Gazprom’s sponsorship of the Champions League were powerful tools for the country’s global image and gained Vladimir Putin prestige amongst the Russian population.
However, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine has resulted in destroying the warm global afterglow and experts believe it could cost him dearly internally.
Saint Petersburg has already been stripped of hosting this year’s Champions League final with Gazprom’s reported 40-million-euro ($45 million) a year sponsorship deal with UEFA also in doubt.
The Russian Formula One Grand Prix has been cancelled and there are calls for the country’s football team to be expelled from the 2022 World Cup play-offs.
“Sport has always had a tremendous impact on society,” Michael Payne, former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP.
“The South African sports boycott over apartheid probably had as much or greater impact than economic sanctions, over forcing regime policy change.”
For Hugh Robertson, Chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), a blanket sports ban could affect Putin’s standing domestically.
“Sport is disproportionately important to absolutist regimes,” he told AFP.
“The potential inability to compete would hit Russia hard.”
Payne, who in nearly two decades at the IOC was widely credited with transforming its brand and finances through sponsorship, said Putin risked his standing with his own people.
“Putin may not care what the rest of the world thinks of him, but he has to care what the Russian people think of him,” said the Irishman.
“Lose their support and it is game over -– and the actions of the sports community has the potential to be a very important influencer towards the Russian people.”
‘A greater good’
Prominent Russian sports stars have not been shy in voicing their disquiet over Putin’s invasion.
Andrey Rublev, who won the Dubai ATP title on Saturday, veteran Russian football international Fedor Smolov, United States-based ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin and cyclist Pavel Sivakov, who rides for the Ineos team have all expressed a desire for peace.
“Russian athletes speaking out to their national fan base, will only serve to further prompt the local population to question the actions of their leadership, and undermine the local national support for the war,” said Payne.
However, another former IOC marketing executive Terrence Burns, who since leaving the organization has played a key role in five successful Olympic bid city campaigns, has doubts about their impact.
“You are making the assumption that Russian people actually see, read, and hear ‘real news’,” he told AFP.
“I do not believe that is the case. The Government will portray Russia as a victim of a great global conspiracy led by the USA and the West.
“It is an old Russian trope they have used quite effectively since the Soviet days.”
Burns says sadly the athletes must also be punished for their government’s aggression.
“I believe that Russia must pay the price for what it has done,” he said.
“Sadly, that has to include her athletes as well.
“Many people, like me, believed that by helping them host the Olympics and World Cup could somehow open and liberalize the society, creating new paths of progress for Russia’s young people. Again, we were wrong.”
Robertson too says allowing Russians to compete when Ukrainians are unable to due to the conflict is “morally inconceivable.”
Payne says individual sports have to look at a bigger moral picture than their own potential losses over cutting Russian sponsorship contracts.
“The sports world risks losing far more by not reacting, than the loss of one or two Russian sponsors.”
Former British lawmaker Robertson, who as Minister for Sport and the Olympics delivered the highly successful 2012 London Games, agrees.
“The sporting world may have to wean itself off Russian money,” said the 59-year-old.
“Over the past few days, it has become apparent that political, economic and trade sanctions will hurt the West as well as Russia, but this is a price that we will have to pay to achieve a greater good.”
For Robertson sport could not stand idly by in response to Russia’s invasion.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact sport but the consequences of inaction, or prevarication, will be far more serious.”
The United Nations Security Council is set to vote Sunday for a rare emergency special session against the backdrop of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. The vote underscores White House claims of international unity in support of Ukraine and comes ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the European Union will close its airspace to Russian airlines and private jets due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ban was decided on Sunday by the bloc’s foreign ministers. The decision is among several actions announced by the foreign ministers after their meeting in Brussels.
“We are shutting down the EU airspace for Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian registered, or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off, or overfly the territory of the EU,” von der Leyen told a news conference.
Many European countries had already announced they would close their airspace to Russian planes.
Finland and Belgium were among the most recent to take the step, saying earlier they would join other European countries in ramping up sanctions against Moscow, officials said.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, “is preparing to close its airspace to Russian air traffic,” Transport Minister Timo Harakka said on Twitter on February 26.
He did not state when the measure would take effect.
Belgian Prime Minster Alexander De Croo said on February 27 that the country “has decided to close its airspace to all Russian airlines.”
De Croo said on Twitter that “our European skies are open skies. They’re open for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress.”
Several other countries, including Germany, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Britain, Romania, and Poland, had already closed their airspace to Russian flights, forcing westbound Russian planes to make enormous diversions.
“France is shutting its airspace to all Russian aircraft and airlines from this evening on,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Twitter.
Air France-KLM said it is suspending flights to and from Russia as well as the overflight of Russian airspace until further notice as of February 27.
Canada also said on February 27 it had shut its airspace to Russian aircraft effective immediately, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said on Twitter.
Germany’s Transport Ministry said it would close its airspace to Russian planes and airlines for three months from February 27, with the exception of humanitarian aid flights.
Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are also closing their airspace to Russian airliners.
Moscow, for its part, has also banned planes from those countries from flying over its territory.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters.
From Moscow to Siberia, Russian anti-war activists took to the streets again Sunday to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the arrests of hundreds of protesters each day by police.
Demonstrators held pickets and marched in city centers, chanting “No to war!” as President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent to be put on high alert, upping the ante in the Kremlin’s standoff with the West and stoking fears of a nuclear war.
“I have two sons and I don’t want to give them to that bloody monster. War is a tragedy for all of us,” 48-year-old Dmitry Maltsev, who joined the rally in St. Petersburg, told The Associated Press.
Protests against the invasion started Thursday in Russia and have continued daily ever since, even as Russian police have moved swiftly to crack down on the rallies and detain protesters. The Kremlin has sought to downplay the protests, insisting that a much broader share of Russians support the assault on Ukraine.
In St. Petersburg, where several hundred gathered in the city center, police in full riot gear were grabbing one protester after another and dragging some into police vans, even though the demonstration was peaceful. Footage from Moscow showed police throwing several female protesters on the ground before dragging them away.
According to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests, by Sunday evening police detained at least 1,474 Russians in 45 cities over anti-war demonstrations that day.
Four days into the the fighting that has killed scores, Putin raised the stakes dramatically on Sunday, ordering the military Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, citing Western countries “taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere” and “top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country.”
The day before, the U.S. and its European allies have warned that the coming round of sanctions could include freezing hard currency reserves of Russia’s Central Bank and cutting Russia off SWIFT international payment system. The unprecedented move could quickly plunge the Russian economy into chaos.
Ordinary Russians fear that stiff sanctions will deliver a crippling blow to the country’s economy. Since Thursday, Russians have been flocking to banks and ATMs to withdraw cash, creating long lines and reporting on social media about ATM machines running out of bills.
According to Russia’s Central Bank, on Thursday alone Russians withdrew 111 billion rubles (about $1.3 billion) in cash.
The anti-war protests on Sunday appeared smaller and more scattered than the ones that took place on the first day of Russia’s attack in Ukraine, when thousands of people rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but their true scale was hard to assess and they seemed to pick up speed as the day went on.
“It is a crime both against Ukraine and Russia. I think it is killing both Ukraine and Russia. I am outraged, I haven’t slept for three nights, and I think we must now declare very loudly that we don’t want to be killed and don’t want Ukraine to be killed,” said Olga Mikheeva, who protested in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.