Following Wagner Group's now-halted march on Moscow, bishop sees 'hope and danger' ahead for Ukraine

Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (OSV News photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters)

(OSV News) ─ While a Catholic bishop in Ukraine warned current events presented "both hope and danger" for his own country, leaders of Russia's Orthodox Church backed President Vladimir Putin's rule and welcomed the apparent defusing of a military rebellion.

"Thank God this incredibly dangerous situation for our country has ended," said the head of the church's Synodal Department for Cooperation with the Armed Forces, Metropolitan Kirill (Pokrovsky).

The metropolitan made the comments June 25 to Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency, after urging support for President Putin's "efforts to preserve peace and harmony" and "prevent an armed coup," and warning rebels their "sins of treason and betrayal" would not be forgiven.

The message was published as troops from the Wagner Group, a mercenary force, withdrew from the strategic southern city of Rostov-on-Don, after their boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, agreed to relocate to Belarus in a deal to end the armed mutiny.

Meanwhile, a Catholic bishop in Ukraine told OSV News that the Wagner Group's forces could represent an even worse threat to his country, and he urged Catholics worldwide to pray God would "lead events in a good direction."

"We are in shock -- no one foresaw such a turn of events, just as no one expected war a year ago," said Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia in a June 24 interview.

"The fact that some of Russia's armed forces are now taking action against their own Defense Ministry offers hope for Ukraine -- that we could win this war sooner than we thought," the bishop said. "But while any country becomes momentarily weaker when confronted with internal problems, there are also grave dangers of destabilization -- and where there's destabilization, unforeseen processes could be set in motion."

Russian media said June 26 that criminal investigations had been launched against Prigozhin, whose 25,000-strong Wagner Group seized Rostov-on-Don over the weekend, but who pulled back after advancing to within 150 miles of Moscow.

The Russian capital's mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, said June 26 that he was canceling counter-terrorism measures, and he thanked residents in a Telegram media post for the "calmness and understanding."

In a televised June 24 national address, Putin branded the rebellion a "stab in the back" for Russia's people, comparable to the 1917 wartime Bolshevik uprising, and he urged those "deceptively pulled into the criminal adventure" to back down.

He added that Russians were fighting for their "sovereignty and independence," and the right "to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history," against "aggression by neo-Nazis and their handlers" at a time when "the whole military, economical and information machines of the West" are "directed against us."

"Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will be punished inevitably," Putin warned, adding that "actions to defend the fatherland from such a threat will be brutal."

"What we're facing is exactly a betrayal. Big ambitions and personal interests led to treason. Betrayal of one's own country and people and of the cause that fighters of Wagner were dying for alongside our soldiers," Putin said.

Meanwhile, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said Russians were called upon to "preserve national unity, pray to God, and support the soldiers" with all their strength at a time of "military confrontation," adding that he supported Putin's efforts "to prevent unrest" and would call on all Orthodox clergy to deliver "solemn prayers" for "preserving peace and unity, now jeopardized by calls for confusion."

"Today, when our brothers are fighting and dying on the fronts, selflessly fulfilling their duty, and when the enemies are making every effort to destroy Russia, any attempt to sow discord in our country is the greatest crime, with no justification," Kirill said in a national message June 24.

The charge of betrayal was angrily rejected in a separate social media message by Prigozhin, who said his troops were "the homeland's patriots" and did not wish their country "to continue living with corruption, deception and bureaucracy."

In a June 26 video message, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said he was concerned at a report by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Russian forces were now laying mines at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and he called on the world to "do everything to stop nuclear blackmail" as Russia turned into "a Stalinist-type totalitarian state."

Meanwhile, Bishop Sobilo told OSV News serious events were clearly underway in Russia, adding that Ukrainians would pray the ultimate outcome would be positive for their war-torn country.

"Let's hope God will direct affairs in such a way that this latest trouble ends well for both Russia and Ukraine -- in our victory, but also, most importantly, without this conflict leading to a global nuclear war," the Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia auxiliary told OSV News.

"All we know for certain is that this chaos will bring great political change in Russia and this part of Europe. So, we must all watch events very carefully, praying that our generation will be the one to witness not only the conversion of Russia but the beginning of a real peace throughout the world," he added.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in a tweet June 24, "No matter how it ends, Prigozhin's actions in the last 24 hours have weakened Putin. Anything that weakens Putin is good for Ukraine."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian history expert Nicholas Rudnytzky said he was concerned at the arms Prigozhin had been able to seize while occupying Rostov-on-Don, and feared he could gain access to nuclear weapons in a bid to show Putin's regime "the proper way to conduct and conclude" the war in Ukraine.

"Although it is greatly appreciated that he has called out the blatant lie that served as the justification for Putin's attack on Ukraine, let us not forget that the Wagner group is responsible for some of the more horrific atrocities of mutilation, torture and barbarity in this war," Rudnytzky, director of the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor College, Pennsylvania, said in a statement passed to OSV News.

"Prigozhin sees himself very much as a patriot and defender of the Russian way -- he has said the fault lies with the military who have deceived Putin. ... For decades serfs in the Russian Empire lamented that the aristocracy and bureaucracy prevented the Tsars from emancipating them. If only the truth could break through to the leader, all would be made right. It seems to me at this moment in time, that is the role that Prigozhin casts himself in."

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Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.



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