A brief ceasefire announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin but rejected by Ukraine as an empty gesture was due to take effect on Friday, marking the first full pause since Moscow invaded in February 2022.
Putin’s order to suspend hostilities for 36 hours over Orthodox Christmas came after Moscow suffered its worst reported casualties of the war and as Ukraine’s allies pledged to send armored vehicles and a second Patriot air defense battery to Kyiv’s aid .
A senior Ukrainian official said shortly after Russia’s perceived pause in the fighting began that Moscow’s forces had hit the southern city of Kherson in an attack that left several dead or wounded.
“There were at least four explosions … They are talking about a ceasefire. This is who we are at war with,” said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential administration.
He did not say whether the strikes themselves were carried out before or after the ceasefire began.
Both countries celebrate Orthodox Christmas and the Russian leader’s order came after calls for a ceasefire by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill, a staunch supporter of Putin.
The shutdown was due to begin on Friday (09:00 GMT) and last until the end of Saturday (21:00 GMT), the Kremlin said.
Ukraine dismissed it as a strategy by Russia to buy time to regroup its forces and strengthen its defenses after a series of battlefield reversals.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said a unilateral ceasefire “cannot and should not be taken seriously”, while a close adviser to him said Russia “must leave the occupied territories” for a real cessation of hostilities.
US President Joe Biden was equally dismissive.
“He was ready to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches” on December 25 and on New Year’s Day, he said. “I think he’s trying to get some oxygen.”
And British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley tweeted: “A 36-hour pause in Russian attacks will do nothing to improve the prospects for peace.”
Russia has occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine since the invasion began on February 24 last year, but Kyiv has reclaimed parts of its territory and this week announced a New Year strike that killed scores of Moscow troops.
The Kremlin said Thursday that in a phone call with Erdogan, Putin told the Turkish leader that Moscow was ready for dialogue if Kyiv recognized “new territorial realities.”
He was referring to Russia’s claim that it has annexed four regions of Ukraine, including the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions – although it does not fully control them.
Cyril, 76, made his call for a ceasefire “so that the Orthodox can attend Christmas Eve and Nativity Day services,” he told the church’s official website on Thursday.
The Kremlin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine led to many clerics who had remained loyal to Cyril defecting from Moscow.
In May, the Moscow-backed branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church severed ties with Russia, citing a lack of condemnation of the fighting.
More weapons for Ukraine
News of Putin’s cease-fire order came as Germany and the United States pledged to provide additional military aid to Kyiv, with Biden saying the promised equipment came at a “critical point” in the war.
Washington and Berlin said in a joint statement that they would provide Kyiv with Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, respectively.
And “Germany will join the United States in delivering an additional Patriot air defense battery to Ukraine,” the statement said, doubling the number of advanced systems that have been promised to Kyiv.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is facing renewed calls to deliver Leopard light tanks, long sought by Kyiv, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the delivery of French AMX-10 RC light tanks to Ukraine.
Putin’s cease-fire order came a day after Moscow raised its death toll in its worst reported loss since the Ukrainian strike to 89 dead.
Ukraine’s military-strategic communications unit said nearly 400 Russian soldiers had died in the eastern Ukrainian town of Makeevka, held by pro-Russian forces. Russian commentators said the death toll could be much higher than the Kremlin figures.
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