Ukraine and Russia accused each other’s forces of continuing to launch attacks despite a Kremlin order for its troops to hold fire over Orthodox Christmas, as Kyiv warned that festive church services in occupied areas could be targeted in so-called false-flag bombings.
Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his military to observe a ceasefire from midday on Friday until midnight on Saturday, when many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, but Ukraine and several of its Western allies dismissed the move as a cynical ploy.
“Three hours of Putin’s ‘Christmas truce’ in Luhansk region, in brief: From 12:00 – 15:00, [the Russians] fired 14 times from artillery and stormed one of our settlements three times,” said Serhiy Haidai, governor of the partly occupied province. “People in de-occupied villages sit for the whole day in basements. The Orthodox killers send them Christmas greetings.”
The Russian defence ministry said Ukraine’s forces kept shelling after the start of the supposed ceasefire – which was a unilateral move that Moscow did not discuss with Kyiv.
“A hand of Christian mercy was extended to the Ukrainians on the great holiday. Their leaders rejected it,” said Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and prime minister of Russia who is now deputy chairman of its security council.
“But pigs have no faith and no innate sense of gratitude. They understand only brute force,” added Mr Medvedev, who was once seen as a moderate liberal in the Kremlin regime but is now an outspoken supporter of the war and Russian nationalism.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia wanted to “use Christmas as a cover to at least briefly stop the advance of our guys ... and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised men closer to our positions”.
US president Joe Biden said Mr Putin was “trying to find some oxygen” for his hard-pressed troops, having been “ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches on [December] 25th and New Year’s”.
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said “a so-called ceasefire brings neither freedom nor security to people living in daily fear under Russian occupation. If Putin wanted peace he would take his soldiers home and the war would be over. But apparently he wants to continue the war after a short break.”
Some observers said Russia’s unilateral ceasefire order was a public relations move aimed at portraying Kyiv as the aggressor, while Ukrainian officials warned that it may be used as cover for attacks on Christmas church services that the Kremlin would blame on Ukraine.
“I am appealing to Ukrainian citizens in temporarily occupied territories: there is information that for Orthodox Christmas, the Russians are preparing terrorist attacks in churches,” said deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk. “I call on citizens to be careful and, if possible, refrain from visiting places with large crowds of people. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.”
Mr Zelenskiy thanked Germany and the United States for pledging to supply armoured infantry fighting vehicles and an additional Patriot air defence system to Ukraine, amid waves of Russian missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure and what Kyiv says are preparations in Moscow for a new offensive in the coming months.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, said the new arms pledges “should leave nobody in any doubt about who bears responsibility for prolonging this conflict”.
“All the actions by the [US] administration indicate a lack of any desire for a political settlement. All this means is that Washington is committed to fighting with us down to the last Ukrainian, while the destiny of people of Ukraine means nothing to the US.”