Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire at the front line in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its troops to stop shooting for a unilateral truce that was firmly rejected by Kyiv.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to observe Russian Orthodox Christmas. Ukraine has said it has no intention to stop fighting, rejecting the purported truce as a stunt by Moscow to buy time to reinforce troops that have taken heavy losses this week.
“What ceasefire? Can you hear?” said a Ukrainian soldier using the nom de guerre Vyshnya, as an explosion rang out in the distance at the front line near Kreminna in eastern Ukraine. “What do they want to achieve if they keep on shooting? We know, we have learnt not to trust them.”
Russia’s defence ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire from noon Moscow time (0900 GMT) “along the entire line of contact”, but said Ukraine had kept up shelling populated areas and military positions.
Reuters heard explosions of what Ukrainian troops at the front line described as incoming Russian rocket fire. Ukrainians fired back from tanks.
The Ukrainian troops said it was quieter than many other days because snowy weather had made it hard to fly drones and spot targets. But they saw no sign of any ceasefire from the Russians.
“The situation today is exactly the same as yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week and last month,” said one, concealing his face with a scarf. “There is no point in talking to them, in believing in their promises, orders and decrees.”
It was not immediately possible to establish whether there was any reduction in the intensity of fighting at other locations.
One witness in the Russian-occupied regional capital Donetsk, close to the front, also described outgoing artillery fired from pro-Russian positions on the city’s outskirts after the truce was meant to take effect.
The Ukrainian governor of the frontline eastern Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said that in the first three hours of the purported ceasefire the Russians had shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed one settlement three times.
“Orthodox murderers wish you a merry Christmas,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
The White House was due to unveil details on Friday of its latest $3 billion package of military aid for Ukraine, for the first time including Bradley Fighting Vehicles, workhorses of the U.S. army.
That caps a week in which both Germany and France have also announced plans to send armoured vehicles, finally fulfilling one of Kyiv’s most urgent requests from its allies, for armour to defeat Russian tanks in mechanised battles.
The U.S. package also includes Sea Sparrow air defence missiles, and Germany’s includes Patriot missiles, which Washington offered last month.
Shortly before the ceasefire was meant to start, rockets slammed into a residential building in Kramatorsk, close to the eastern frontline, damaging 14 homes, though with no casualties as many people have fled.
“It’s bad, very bad,” said Oleksnadr, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack. “We need to pressure them, get them to leave, maybe more air defence systems would help. This happens often, not only on festive occasions. Every other day.”
One rescue worker was killed and four others injured when Russian forces shelled a fire department in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson before the deadline early on Friday, the regional governor said. Reuters could not immediately verify this.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rejected the Russian ceasefire out of hand as a ploy for Russia to buy time after sustaining crippling losses at the front line.
“They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys … and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised troops closer to our positions,” Zelenskiy said in his Thursday night video address.
Russia has sustained heavy losses in recent days, including scores of troops killed on New Year’s Eve in the deadliest incident of the war it has acknowledged for its own troops.
Despite the truce, pro-Russian officials had indicated they would keep fighting if Ukraine does. Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, said on Thursday that Putin’s order only covered offensive operations and his forces would hit back if fired upon.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, starting a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of Ukrainians. With weapons and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has driven Russia back from some of its territory but battles are raging in the east and south.
Ukraine’s military General Staff said its soldiers repelled repeated Russian attacks over the past day, with Moscow focused on trying to take towns in Donetsk.
“The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on attempts to establish control over the Donetsk region” without success, the General Staff said in a statement, adding that both Ukraine and Russia had launched multiple air strikes over the past day.
Russia’s Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan. 7. The main Orthodox Church in Ukraine has rejected the authority of Moscow, and many Ukrainian believers have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, as in the West.