Strikes in East Ukraine Despite Putin’s Ceasefire Order
Artillery exchanges hit war-torn towns in eastern Ukraine on Friday, despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to halt attacks for 36 hours for Orthodox Christmas.
The brief truce announced by Putin earlier this week was due to begin at 0900 GMT on Friday and would be the first full pause since the February 2022 invasion of Moscow.
But AFP journalists heard shelling in and out of the front-line town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine after the Russian ceasefire was supposed to have started.
Moscow’s forces also hit Kramatorsk in the east, Ukraine’s presidential administration said, as well as the front-line town of Kurakhevo where residential buildings and a medical facility were damaged.
Putin’s order to halt fighting over Orthodox Christmas came after Moscow suffered its worst reported loss of life in the war and as Ukraine’s allies pledged to send armored vehicles and a second Patriot air defense battery to help Kiev.
Cease fire ‘not serious’
Kyrylo Tymoshenko from Ukraine’s presidential office said earlier that Moscow forces had hit a fire station in the southern city of Kherson in an attack that left several dead or wounded.
“They talk about a truce. This is who we are at war with,” he said.
The head of Ukraine’s Lugansk region meanwhile added that Russian forces had fired 14 times on Kiev’s position in the regions and tried to attack a settlement held by Ukrainian forces.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said, however, that it was respecting its unilateral ceasefire and accused Ukrainian forces of continuing shelling.
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.
Ukraine had already dismissed the ban – which was due to last until the end of Saturday (21:00 GMT) – as a strategy by Russia to buy time to regroup its forces and strengthen its defenses after a series of changes on the battlefield.
The French Foreign Ministry described the so-called ceasefire as a “crude” attempt by Russia to deflect attention from its culpability for the war.
While the EU’s top diplomat said on Friday that the ceasefire was “not credible”.
“The Kremlin completely lacks credibility and this declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is not credible,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said during a visit to Morocco.
Since the invasion began on February 24 last year, Russia has seized parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but Kiev has retaken parts of its territory and this week claimed a New Year attack that killed scores of Moscow troops.
The Kremlin said on Thursday that during a phone call with Erdogan, Putin had told the Turkish leader Moscow was ready for dialogue if Kiev recognized “new territorial realities”.
He was referring to Russia’s claim to annex four regions of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions – despite not fully controlling them.
In Bakhmut, located in the Donetsk region, dozens of civilians gathered at a building used as a base for humanitarian aid, where volunteers organized a Christmas Eve party less than an hour after the ceasefire was due to take effect, distribute tangerines, apples and cookies.
The streets of the mostly bombed-out city were mostly empty except for military vehicles. The shelling was lighter on Friday than it had been in recent days.
Pavlo Diachenko, a police officer in Bakhmut, said he doubted the ceasefire would mean much to the city’s civilians even if it had been observed.
“What can a church holiday mean to them? They are bombing every day and night and almost every day there are people killed,” he said.
Kirill, 76, made his call for a truce “so that Orthodox people can attend Christmas Eve and Nativity Day services,” he said on the church’s official website on Thursday.
But there was widespread skepticism on the streets of Kiev about the gesture.
“You can never, ever trust them… Whatever they promise, they don’t deliver,” said Olena Fedorenko, a 46-year-old from the war-torn city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
More weapons for Ukraine
Away from the front lines, Moscow resident Tatyana Zakharova said she was not in a festive mood on Orthodox Christmas Eve because her brother was fighting in Ukraine.
“Of course, we will go to church… we will pray first of all for my brother, our sons,” the 35-year-old told AFP.
News of Putin’s ceasefire order came as Germany and the United States pledged to provide additional military aid to Kiev, with US President Joe Biden saying the promised equipment comes at a “critical point” in the war.
Washington and Berlin said in a joint statement that they will provide Kiev with Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
Putin’s cease-fire order came a day after Moscow raised the reported toll in the worst reported casualty from a Ukrainian attack to 89 dead.