Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a unilateral ceasefire by Russian troops in Ukraine over the Orthodox Christmas on January 6-7, a move that Kyiv described as hypocritical and a propaganda attempt.
The ceasefire, which followed an appeal by Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, will come into effect at midday on January 6 and last until midnight the following day, and will apply along the length of the contact line, the Kremlin said on Thursday.
“We call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and give [people] the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the day of the nativity of Christ,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Ukraine rejected Russia’s truce. Russia “must leave the occupied territories — only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep hypocrisy to yourself,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the office of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Twitter.
Earlier, Podolyak described Kirill’s appeal as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda”.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address on Thursday that Russia’s proposed ceasefire was a ploy. “They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys in Donbas, and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised troops closer to our positions,” he said.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, speaking on television, said Kyiv would not enter into any negotiations with Russia about a Christmas ceasefire.
The defence ministry in Moscow said it had received the president’s order and directed troops to begin a 36-hour ceasefire from midday on January 6.
Asked about Putin’s call for a ceasefire, US president Joe Biden said: “I found it interesting. He was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches on the 25th and New Years. I think he is trying to find some oxygen.”
The order comes days after Russia suffered a major blow on New Year’s Eve when Ukraine hit a barracks housing soldiers in the town of Makiivka in the Russian-occupied Donetsk province in the east.
The official death toll, according to Russia’s defence ministry, stood at 89 on Wednesday, while Kyiv claimed it was in the hundreds. Several Russian pro-war military bloggers accused commanders of “criminal negligence” and called for individuals to be punished for allowing a large number of soldiers to be housed together and in an unprotected building.
Russia has not made significant battleground gains since conscripting 300,000 men following a mobilisation order in late September. After being pushed out of most of the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine in the late summer, Russian forces also retreated from the southern regional capital Kherson in November. A push to win control over the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk has turned into a grinding battle.
The Russian Orthodox patriarch who proposed the ceasefire has been an ardent supporter of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
It has deepened an existing rift between the religious communities of the two countries, with Ukrainian churches and churchgoers breaking ties with Moscow over the Kremlin’s invasion and the Patriarch’s pro-war position. Many Orthodox church buildings have also been damaged by air strikes on Ukraine.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, said Putin’s decision to call a ceasefire was part of the Kremlin’s “publicity game”.
“In this war Putin feels like the ‘good guy’, doing a good deed not only for himself and ‘brotherly peoples’ of Russia and Ukraine, but also for the world, freeing it from American ‘hegemony’,” Stanovaya wrote on her social media page. Putin will perceive and present the ceasefire call as a case of Russia acting on the “good side of history”.
But it can also be seen as a response to the recent strike on the army barracks in Makiivka, she said.
“Putin really does not want a repetition of that on [Orthodox] Christmas Day,” she said.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington