KYIV/BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters)—Ukraine spurned an announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday of a 36-hour ceasefire to mark Orthodox Christmas, saying there would be no truce until Russia withdraws its invading forces from occupied land.
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered a ceasefire from midday on Friday after a call for a Christmas truce from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Taking into account the appeal of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, I instruct the Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation to introduce a ceasefire regime along the entire line of contact of the parties in Ukraine from 12:00 on January 6, 2023 to 24:00 on January 7, 2023,” Putin said in the order.
“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.
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak tweeted back that Russia “must leave the occupied territories – only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep hypocrisy to yourself.”
He said that unlike Russia, Ukraine was not attacking foreign territory or killing civilians, only destroying “members of the occupation army on its territory”.
Podolyak had earlier rejected Kirill’s call for a truce as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda”. He described the Russian Orthodox Church, which has endorsed Russia’s invasion, as a “war propagandist”.
Ukraine has previously said any Russian call for a ceasefire would be an attempt by Moscow to secure some respite for its troops, which Ukraine is trying to force from territory Russia seized after its invasion last February.
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.
Earlier on Thursday, Russia and Ukraine made clear there would be no peace talks between them any time soon, effectively spurning an offer of mediation by Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke separately to both Putin and Ukraine‘s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The Kremlin said Putin had told Erdogan Moscow was ready for talks – but only under the condition thatUkraine “take into account the new territorial realities”, a reference to Kyiv acknowledging Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine‘s Podolyak called that demand “fully unacceptable”.
Ten months after Putin ordered an invasion of his neighbour and seized swathes of Ukrainian land, Russia andUkraine have both entered the new year with hardened diplomatic positions.
After major battlefield victories in the second half of 2022, Kyiv is increasingly confidant it can drive Russian invaders from more of its land.
Putin, for his part, has shown no willingness to discuss relinquishing his territorial conquests, despite mounting losses among his troops, after he ordered the first call-up of reservists since World War Two.
Russia says it is fighting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to protect its security from a threat caused by Kyiv’s pro-Western outlook.
The Turkish presidency said Erdogan, who has acted as a mediator in the past, told Putin on Thursday that a ceasefire was needed to end the conflict, and told Zelenskiy that Turkey was prepared to serve as a mediator for a final peace.
Despite some of the heaviest fighting of the war, 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, a target with little strategic value. Russia says Bakhmut is key to its aim to “liberate” 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.
He said Russians appeared to be moving forces from Bakhmut to Soledar, having failed to advance: “They aren’t able to rip through the defence, so now they aim for Soledar.”
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. A cat said amid some ruins, next to black and white family photographs strewn in the rubble.
In a humanitarian shelter inside a gym in a basement, a child played in a boxing ring, while grown-ups slurped instant soup. A soldier was passing out bread from a van.
“We live on through the shelling,” said Oleksandr Ivanovych, 55, who stayed behind after his children and grandchildren left.
“Sometimes it’s quieter, sometimes louder. Yesterday I came under mortar shelling while walking. I was covered with rubble a bit. It’s fine. We’ll pull through.”
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Heavens)