Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Thursday for a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to mark Orthodox Christmas, a move rejected by Kyiv which said there could be no truce until Russia withdraws its troops from occupied land.
The United States and Germany made a joint announcement to supply Ukraine with armoured combat vehicles, a boost for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy who has urged Western allies to provide his forces with armour and heavy weapons for months.
Fifty Bradley Fighting Vehicles would be included in a $2.8 billion U.S. package. Germany said it was sending Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles, following an announcement by France on Wednesday it was sending AMX-10 RC armoured combat vehicles.
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered Russian troops to cease firing from midday on Friday along the entire front, in response to a call for a Christmas truce from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close Putin ally.
“Proceeding from the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and allow them to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on Christmas Day,” Putin said in his order.
Russia’s Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan. 7. Ukraine’s main Orthodox Church has rejected the authority of the Moscow patriarch, and many Ukrainian believers have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as in the West.
A genuine truce in Ukraine would be the first since May, when the sides halted intense fighting in the devastated port of Mariupol to allow Ukrainian forces to surrender there.
On Thursday night, Zelenskiy accused Russia of wanting to use a truce as cover to stop Ukrainian advances in the strategic industrial area and eastern frontline known as the Donbas.
“They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys in Donbas and bring equipment, ammunitions and mobilised troops closer to our positions,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address, speaking pointedly in Russian rather than Ukrainian.
‘CYNICAL’ SAYS U.S.
In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden, the State Department and the Pentagon greeted Putin’s order with scepticism. Biden said he thought Putin was “trying to find some oxygen”.
Ukraine has scored some battlefield successes in the past few months although Russia has kept up a barrage of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s energy plants, knocking out power to millions of people at times in the middle of winter. Russia has denied targeting civilians since its invasion began Feb. 24 but the strikes included Christmas Day and New Year’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, according to Kyiv.
“There’s one word that best described that and it’s ‘cynical’,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing of Putin’s ceasefire order.
“Our concern … is that the Russians would seek to use any temporary pause in fighting to rest, to refit, to regroup, and ultimately to re-attack,” Price said.
Putin’s ceasefire also appeared to face challenges from Russia’s own side. Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed leader in Ukraine’s Donetsk province, scene of the heaviest fighting, wrote on Telegram: “There can be no talk of any truce!”
He said Putin’s order involved only halting offensive operations.
Earlier on Thursday, the Kremlin said Putin had told Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan that Moscow was ready for peace talks – but only under the condition that Ukraine “take into account the new territorial realities”, a reference to Kyiv acknowledging Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak called that demand “fully unacceptable”.
Ten months after Putin ordered what he calls a “special military operation” to protect Russian security, Moscow and Kyiv have entered the new year with hardened diplomatic positions.
Putin has shown no willingness to discuss relinquishing his territorial conquests, despite mounting losses among his troops.
While some of the heaviest fighting of the war continues, the front line has been static since the last big Russian retreat in mid-November. The worst battles have taken place near the eastern city of Bakhmut, which both sides have compared to a meat grinder.
Ukraine says Russia has lost thousands of troops despite seizing scant ground in months of futile waves of assaults on Bakhmut. Russia says the city is key to its aim to capture the rest of Donetsk province, one of four partially occupied regions it claims to have annexed.
Near the front, Reuters saw explosions from outgoing artillery and smoke filling the sky.
“We are holding up. The guys are trying to hold up the defence,” said Viktor, a 39-year-old Ukrainian soldier driving an armoured vehicle out of Soledar, a salt-mining town on Bakhmut’s northeastern outskirts.
Most civilians have been evacuated from Bakhmut. Those who have stayed survive under near constant bombardment, with no heat or electricity. Parts of the city are a wasteland, with sections of residential apartment blocks flattened into concrete piles.