KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his armed forces to observe a unilateral 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine this weekend for the Orthodox Christmas holiday, the first such comprehensive truce in the nearly 11-month war.
Putin did not appear to tie his cease-fire order to a Ukrainian agreement to follow suit, and it was unclear whether the hostilities would actually stop along the 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) front line or elsewhere. Ukrainian officials have previously dismissed Russian peace moves as buying time for their forces to regroup and prepare for further attacks.
At various times during the war, which began on February 24, Russian authorities have ordered limited and local ceasefires to allow evacuations of civilians or for other humanitarian purposes. Thursday’s order was the first time Putin ordered his troops to observe a ceasefire across Ukraine.
“Based on the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to announce a ceasefire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ “, said Putin’s order, addressed to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and published on the Kremlin’s website.
While not necessarily the final official word from Kyiv, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak tweeted that Russian forces “must leave the occupied territories — only then will there be a ‘temporary truce.’ Keep the hypocrisy to yourself.”
US President Joe Biden declined to comment directly, but said at the White House on Thursday that it was “interesting” that Putin was willing to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches on Christmas and New Year. “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen,” he said.
Putin was acting on the suggestion of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who proposed a truce from noon Friday to midnight Saturday Moscow time (09:00 GMT Friday to 21:00 GMT Saturday; 4 a.m. EST Friday to 3 p.m. EST Saturday). The Orthodox Church, which uses the ancient Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas on January 7 – later than the Gregorian calendar – although some Christians in Ukraine also observe the holiday on that date.
Podoliak had earlier dismissed Cyril’s appeal as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda”. President Volodymyr Zelensky has offered to withdraw Russian troops earlier, before December 25, but Russia has rejected it.
Kirill had previously justified the war as part of Russia’s “metaphysical struggle” to prevent liberal ideological encroachment by the West.
Independent political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said Putin’s cease-fire order was intended to make him appear reasonable and interested in peace.
The move “fits well with Putin’s logic that Russia is acting on the right side of history and fighting for justice,” she said.
“We must not forget that in this war Putin feels like a ‘good man’ who does good not only for himself and ‘fraternal nations’, but also for the world, which he frees from the ‘hegemony’ of the United States,” Stanovaya , founder of the independent think tank R.Politik, wrote on Telegram.
She also linked Putin’s move to the recent strike by Ukrainian forces on Makeevka, which killed at least 89 Russian servicemen. “He really doesn’t want to get something like this for Christmas,” the analyst said.
On the rainy streets of Kyiv, some questioned the sincerity of the Russians in discussing a truce.
“Should we trust the Russians? – Svetlana Zhereva was surprised after Kiril’s proposal. “On the one hand, they have blessed to fight and kill, and on the other hand, they want to present themselves as saints who are against bloodshed. But they must be judged by their actions.
Putin issued the cease-fire order after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged him in a phone call Thursday to implement a “unilateral ceasefire,” according to the Turkish president’s office. The Kremlin said the Russian president had “reaffirmed Russia’s openness to serious dialogue” with Ukrainian authorities.
Erdogan also told Zelensky later on the phone that Turkey was ready to mediate for “lasting peace.” Erdogan has often made such offers, helped broker a deal allowing Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain, and facilitated a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap.
Russia’s stated willingness for peace talks came with the usual preconditions: that “the authorities in Kyiv meet the well-known and repeatedly stated demands and recognize the new territorial realities,” the Kremlin said, referring to Moscow’s insistence that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia and recognize other illegal territorial acquisitions.
Previous attempts at peace talks have failed over Russia’s territorial claims, as Ukraine insists that Russia withdraw from the occupied territories.
Elsewhere, the NATO chief saw no change in Moscow’s stance on Ukraine, insisting the Kremlin “wants a Europe where they can control a neighboring country”.
“We have no indication that President Putin has changed his plans, his goals for Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Oslo, Norway.
Individual NATO countries are stepping up their military support for Ukraine with increasingly advanced weapons.
In the latest pledge, France’s defense ministry said it plans imminent talks with its Ukrainian counterpart on the supply of armored fighting vehicles. The French presidency says this will be the first time this type of Western wheeled tank destroyer will be sent to the Ukrainian army.
In the United States, Biden said Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a medium armored fighting vehicle that can serve as a troop carrier, could be sent to Ukraine.
As more weapons arrive, the battlefield situation seems to have settled into a stalemate, increasingly a war of attrition. With the onset of winter, the mobility of troops and equipment is more limited.
In the latest fighting, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Thursday at least five civilians had been killed and eight wounded across the country by Russian shelling in the past 24 hours.
Intense fighting has left 60 percent of the eastern city of Bakhmut in ruins, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said Thursday. The Ukrainian defenders seem to be holding the Russians back. Capturing the city in the Donbass region, an expansive industrial zone bordering Russia, would not only give Putin a major battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but would cut Ukraine’s supply lines and open the way for Moscow’s forces to push to key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
In what appeared to be a move to attract more men to join the fight, the first convicts recruited to fight by the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, were given a promised pardon by the government after serving six months on the front lines.
A video released by state news agency RIA Novosti shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group, shaking hands with about 20 pardoned men.
The White House said last month that Wagner had about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 40,000 recruited prisoners. The US estimates that Wagner spends about $100 million a month on the fight.
Video journalist Bela Shandelski in Kyiv and Juras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed.
Follow AP’s war coverage on https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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