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 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.
A genuine truce in Ukraine would be the first since last May, when the sides halted intense fighting in the devastated port of Mariupol to allow Ukrainian forces to surrender there.
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak tweeted that Russia “must leave the occupied territories – only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep hypocrisy to yourself.”
The Secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danylov, tweeted: “A ceasefire? Lies and hypocrisy. We will bite you in the singing silence of the Ukrainian night.”
Asked about the truce proposal, U.S. President Joe Biden said he thought Putin was “trying to find some oxygen”.
“I’m reluctant to respond to anything that Putin says. I found it interesting that he was willing to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches … on the 25th and New Year’s,” Biden told reporters at the White House. Russia has denied targeting civilians.
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: “It does not mean that we will not respond to provocations from the enemy. Or give any chance to the enemy at this festive time to improve their positions on the line of contact.”
That the truce proposal comes from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is likely to make it even less palatable to Kyiv. Ukraine’s authorities view Kirill, who has described the Russian invasion as “blessed”, as a Putin ally used by the Kremlin to give religious justifications for war.
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, the Kremlin said Putin 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.
Ukraine’s Podolyak called that demand “fully unacceptable”.
Ten months after Putin ordered an invasion of his neighbour and seized swathes of Ukrainian land in what he calls a “special military operation” to protect Russian security, Moscow and Kyiv have 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.
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. 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.
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.”