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Mercenary leader’s death stirs Catholic reflections in Russia and Ukraine

A man adjusts a flag with Wagner logo Aug. 25, 2023, at a makeshift memorial near the former Wagner Center in St. Petersburg, Russia. The center is the former headquarters of the Wagner Group, whose leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and other leaders of the group were presumed killed in an Aug. 23 plane crash outside Moscow. (OSV News photo/Anton Vaganov, Reuters)

(OSV News) — A Ukrainian Catholic bishop has urged Russians to learn lessons from the fate of mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, and choose “true democracy” rather than “an unstable dictatorship.”

“Prigozhin showed total ruthlessness, using unprincipled methods which deserved no respect from civilized states,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia.

“Although he loyally undertook President Vladimir Putin’s dirty work in Africa and elsewhere, he was still destroyed, getting what he deserved. This should be a warning light to anyone counting on Putin,” he added. “Isn’t it better to declare for a true democracy rather than risk their lives for an unstable dictatorship?”

The bishop spoke after Prigozhin and other members of his mercenary Wagner Group were presumed killed in an Aug. 23 plane crash outside Moscow.

In an OSV News interview, he said Prigozhin’s death revealed the “graphic truth” of Christ’s words in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and also signaled “growing problems at the heart of the Russian state.”

However, a Russian Catholic university professor warned peace in Ukraine still remained “a long way off,” and said he doubted Prigozhin’s death would significantly impact Russian attitudes.

“Some viewed Prigozhin as an opponent of Putin, who wished to change the power system here — but he was also a radical enemy of Ukraine, insisting on a brutal war,” the Catholic professor, who asked not to be named, told OSV News.

“Although his terrible Wagner troops were generously financed from the state budget, they weren’t officially recognized as a military force, and no one knows how far their actions were choreographed by Putin’s administration. In this sense, it makes little difference whether Prigozhin was assassinated or died accidentally,” he said.

Prigozhin, a former convict and restaurateur, who owned companies linked to Russia’s Defense Ministry and intelligence agencies, founded the Wagner Group in 2014 to support pro-Russian paramilitaries in Ukraine, and was believed among 10 killed when his business jet crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver Region.

The crash, widely viewed as an assassination, took place two months after Wagner Group mutineers occupied the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and advanced to within 150 miles of Moscow, later withdrawing after Prigozhin agreed to relocate his forces to Belarus.

In an Aug. 24 TV interview, Putin vowed a full investigation, as masked men claiming to belong to the Wagner Group vowed revenge for his death in social media posts.

In his OSV News interview, the Catholic professor said the preoccupation with figures such as Prigozhin obscured the “everyday sufferings and tragedies” of ordinary Russian soldiers and conscripts in the Ukraine war.

He added that he feared three of his nephews in St. Petersburg could soon be drafted to fight, and said a young Catholic conscript from Moscow’s Immaculate Conception Parish had recently been denied medical treatment and ordered back to the front line, despite suffering a concussion when a Ukrainian rocket destroyed his armored personnel carrier.

However, Bishop Sobilo said Prigozhin’s death had been viewed as an “act of justice” in Ukraine, and as a reminder that “well resourced internal centrifugal forces” existed in Russia, opposed to President Putin’s policies.

“The Russian colossus isn’t functioning as well politically as many hoped — while the Russian authorities have little respect for their own collaborators, and are ready to eliminate them as in Stalinist times, there are also destabilizing forces at work,” the Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia auxiliary told OSV News.

“Prigozhin and his Wagnerites lived by the sword, and this sword has now been turned against them, despite promises of protection. Countries such as Belarus who think they can cooperate well with Russia should be reminded that they too will be thrown aside if their actions don’t suit Russian thinking,” he added.

News of Prigozhin’s death coincided with Ukraine’s Aug. 24 Independence Day, which was marked by a parade of captured Russian military hardware in Kyiv and an ecumenical thanksgiving service in the capital’s 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral, attended by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

A new national military cemetery, covering 660 acres at Fastiv, also was announced by the Kyiv government for some of the 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians estimated killed so far in the 18-month war.

In a message, U.S. President Joe Biden said Ukrainians were celebrating 32 years of independent statehood while “suffering the all-out assault of Putin’s craven war for land and power,” and vowed the U.S. and its partners would continue supporting the country as it showed the world “freedom is worth fighting for.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, said citizens were grateful to God they could be “worthy people” in a “free and independent state,” and should continue “doing everything so Ukraine wins its unequal battle.”

In his OSV News interview, Bishop Sobilo said Ukrainians were increasingly united in a determination to reclaim all territory within their borders at the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.

“People believe in a Ukrainian victory, and there’s even greater resolve now not to give up any land as a price for peace — if we did, we know it wouldn’t end the conflict,” the bishop said.

“Meanwhile, the fate of Prigozhin shows those who support Russian aggression cannot count on staying safe — once they’re no longer needed by Putin, they too will be ruthlessly eliminated.”

In an Aug. 24 national message, Zelenskyy thanked all Ukrainians involved in the war effort, including those wounded, taken prisoner and living under Russian occupation, adding that the continuing fight for independence was “important to everyone.”

However, the Russian Catholic professor said he hoped a peace deal could still be reached to avoid “throwing hundreds of thousands of more young people into the war,” adding that he believed Ukraine’s bishops were making better use of Catholic teaching than Russia’s in their approach to the war.

“Like other Christians, I have no doubt the truth is on Ukraine’s side and that this is an unjust war by Russia — this is clear from the Catholic Church’s social doctrine,” said the lay Catholic, a former member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and adviser to Vatican Radio.

“But there may also be diplomatic ways for seeking Christian compromises, rather than demanding justice at any cost. While I can understand the militant rhetoric coming from the Russian side, since I know how Russian propaganda works, I less understand the militant rhetoric coming from Ukraine.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.

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