KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s security service charged a senior Orthodox Christian leader on Saturday with supporting Russia’s war effort, in a sharp escalation of a dispute over loyalty to the state that has deeply divided the country’s dominant religion.
The charge against the vicar, Pavlo Lebid, came as Russian forces pounded targets along the front line in eastern Ukraine, killing at least five civilians. After several months of heavy fighting, however, Moscow has struggled to make a decisive breakthrough.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, Ukraine has worked to weed out Moscow’s influence over religious matters and stamp out perceived clerical support for the Kremlin. The abbot of the revered Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, Mr. Lebid is a senior figure in one of Ukraine’s major Orthodox churches, a branch connected to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow whose leader has spoken out strongly in favor of President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians argue that Mr. Lebid’s church has not clearly stated its position on the conflict and is therefore compromised. The Ukrainian security services have gone further, describing the Russian-aligned patriarchate as an incubator of pro-Russia sentiment and as infiltrated by priests and monks who have directly aided Moscow in the war.
Since the war began, agents have arrested dozens of priests and monks, accusing them of spying for the Kremlin and even of helping direct Russian airstrikes. The church’s leaders have said that the behavior of individual priests does not reflect its overall position.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s security service said it had searched Mr. Lebid’s house before he appeared at a court in the Ukrainian capital charged with making statements that justified Moscow’s invasion. The security service detailed the allegations in a statement posted on the Telegram messaging app and released clips on its YouTube channel that it said showed his phone conversations and sermons that backed up the charge.
In another clip posted on Twitter and carried on the Ukrainska Pravda website, Mr. Lebid appeared in court dressed in his clerical black robes and denying the charge.
“I have never been on the side of aggression,” he said. “I am against aggression. And now I am in Ukraine. This is my land.”
Many Ukrainians argue that the war is about more than territorial aggression, viewing it as part of a broader struggle to escape the political, cultural and linguistic domination of Moscow and to establish the country’s independence once and for all.
As part of that drive, a Ukrainian Orthodox church independent from Moscow was established in 2019. Since the invasion, the Ukrainian authorities have moved to have that church take full control over the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, which to date has been partly controlled by Mr. Lebid’s branch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
But Mr. Lebid this week defied an eviction order from the Ukrainian authorities, leading to a standoff at the monastery, which is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Valentina, who joined a demonstration in support of Mr. Lebid’s clerics on Thursday, said that she was insulted by the authorities’ moves, which to her seemed to call into question her patriotism as a Ukrainian, given that her husband had spent the past year at the front line.
“All of us mothers are here to pray for our sons and husbands who are fighting in the war,” she said as she joined dozens of women who had gathered at the monastery gates to protest the government’s eviction order. She asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety in the current climate.
“The apocalypse will begin in Ukraine if our church is taken away,” she said on Thursday as she emerged from a dawn service. “The sky will close and there will be no rain. There will be famine, and half of Kyiv will drown in the waters of the Dnipro.”
Her sentiments reflected the layers of a dispute over a church with deep roots in Ukrainian society and the different ways that church followers and leaders have experienced it.
In addition to the argument that the branch of the church to which Mr. Lebid belongs is compromised, many Ukrainians say that it promotes a view of cultural unity with Russia that underpins the Kremlin’s rationale for its invasion — and which Ukraine rejects.
It is the “last cultural outpost of Putin in Ukraine that helps him influence Ukrainian citizens,” the spokesman for the Kyiv-aligned Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Mykhailo Omelian, said in an interview this week. “Liberating Lavra, we feel the same joy we felt after liberating Ukrainian cities from Russian occupation.”
But for Valentina and many other followers, membership is perfectly compatible with their patriotism, and such considerations rate a distant second to the spiritual solace that the church provides.
The Kremlin, for its part, has characterized Ukraine’s stance on the Moscow-aligned church as evidence of its hypocrisy in its claims of democratic tolerance. On Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry decried Mr. Lebid’s arrest as an April Fool’s joke that had “gone too far,” resulting in a “full crackdown” on the church by Ukrainian authorities.
As the dispute over the church escalated, the war that is now in its 14th month continued to flare, with Ukraine repelling 70 Russian attacks over the previous 24 hours on its eastern front, the military’s General Staff said in its morning update.
The town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, which has been under assault since the earliest days of last February’s invasion, bore the brunt of the attacks, but fighting also raged in Bakhmut, where both sides have sustained heavy casualties for months, and in the town of Marinka.
A deadly attack in Avdiivka on Friday underscored the painful toll.
“A 5-month-old boy and his grandmother were killed, while the child’s mother and father were injured,” the head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said in a post on Telegram. The family had refused to evacuate before the attack, Mr. Kyrylenko added.
After Russian forces failed to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv a year ago, Mr. Putin made the capture of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine his military’s primary objective. In recent weeks, Russian forces have stepped up their attacks in the area as part of a new offensive push.
But Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency said on Saturday that “it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed.”
More than a year into the war, the Russian military has suffered staggering losses — as many as 200,000 troops killed or wounded, Western officials say, and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Military analysts and Ukrainian officials say that Russia is also running low on artillery shells and cruise missiles, and is having trouble replenishing its stocks because of Western sanctions. Many of its most elite, best-trained and experienced units have been decimated.
On Saturday, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, met with generals involved in Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine to discuss the supply of weapons to troops, the ministry said in a statement. Mr. Shoigu said that “measures are being taken to increase” the supply of munitions, the statement added.
Ukraine is expected to launch its own counteroffensive in the coming weeks, bolstered by new weapons supplied by the United States and other allies. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine hinted at what was to come in his overnight address, sounding a defiant note.
“We are preparing our next steps, our active actions. We are preparing the approach of our victory,” he said late Friday. “We will not leave a single trace of Russia on our land.”
The continued assaults coincided with Russia’s assumption of the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April for the first time since February 2022, when it began the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The presidency is largely a ceremonial role that rotates monthly among its 15 members based on alphabetical order.
But Ukraine has expressed outrage that Russia will be taking up the post given its attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure, and in light of the arrest warrant issued this month by the International Criminal Court accusing Mr. Putin of war crimes. Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called it “a slap in the face to the international community.” Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said the development posed “another symbolic blow to the rules-based system of international relations.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.