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Putin orders cease-fire for Orthodox Christmas but Ukraine sees ‘hypocrisy’

Destroyed Russian military vehicles at an outdoor exhibit in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on Thursday. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his invading troops in Ukraine to observe a 36-hour unilateral cease-fire across the entire front to accommodate Orthodox Christmas celebrations, beginning at noon Friday and running through Saturday.

But the move, with Russia still occupying vast tracts of Ukrainian territory and having bombarded Ukraine with airstrikes on New Year’s Eve, was quickly rebuffed in Kyiv. A top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Russia “must leave the occupied territories — only then will it have a ‘temporary truce.’”

“Keep hypocrisy to yourself,” Podolyak added, posting a statement on Twitter in which he also accused Russia of killing civilians and said Ukraine was only defending itself.

Putin’s order was announced by the Kremlin, which said that the president was responding to an appeal from the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill — a fierce supporter of Putin and his bloody invasion of Ukraine — who has blessed Russian troops to go to the front line and delivered fervent anti-Western sermons throughout the past year.

Kirill’s role in the cease-fire drew further scorn from Ukrainian officials, who also accused Moscow of cynically trying to put a halt to its recent battlefield losses, including a string of precision strikes by Ukraine that caused steep casualties among Russian forces.

“This is a sign that Putin and his army are getting weaker,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, tweeted. “He wants to use any pause in the destruction of his soldiers and equipment.”

Even some Russian analysts suggested that Putin was hoping to avoid bad news on the holiday, while also trying to present himself as magnanimous by calling for what would be the first comprehensive cease-fire along the entire front since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“The Christmas cease-fire fits perfectly into Putin’s logic, where Russia is acting on the right side of history and fights for justice, in its own understanding, of course,” Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik, a Russian political analysis group, said.

Stanovaya suggested that the decision could have been driven in part by the death of scores of Russian soldiers on New Year’s Day, in a strike on a garrison in occupied Ukraine, which led to the widest public outpouring of grief in Russia so far.

Russian commanders blamed for heavy losses in New Year’s Day strike

Putin urged Ukrainians to join in the cease-fire, saying it would allow time for civilians and soldiers to attend Christmas celebrations.

“As a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the combat areas, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a cease-fire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Jesus,” the statement, posted on the Kremlin website, said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu quickly issued his own statement, saying he had instructed Russian troops to implement the pause in fighting.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price backed Ukraine’s skepticism surrounding Russia’s announced cease-fire, calling it a “cynical” ploy that doesn’t change Washington’s assessment that Russia is not serious about negotiating an end to the war.

“It’s cynical in large part because it comes just days after Moscow perpetrated these New Year’s Day attacks on Ukraine,” Price told reporters during a daily briefing in Washington. He added, “Our concern … is that the Russians would seek to use any temporary pause in fighting to rest, to refit, to regroup and ultimately to reattack.”

Despite the politics, a 36-hour reprieve would no doubt be appreciated by exhausted troops on both sides, many of whom are now battling in difficult winter conditions. But any long-term pause in fighting would be to Russia’s advantage, given its string of recent battlefield setbacks and struggle to hold on to occupied territory.

Even before Putin endorsed the idea of a pause in fighting on Thursday, Podolyak had dismissed Kirill’s appeal as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda.”

“[The Russian Orthodox Church] is not an authority for global Orthodoxy [and] acts as a ‘war propagandist.’ [It] called for the genocide of Ukrainians, incited mass murder [and] insists on even greater militarization of [Russia],” Podolyak posted on Twitter.

Denis Pushilin, head of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), said “there could be no truce” and that Putin’s decision meant the cessation of “offensive actions on our side,” while Russia would continue to respond to “enemy provocations.”

Other analysts and peace advocates noted that Putin had a long track record of violating cease-fire agreements, particularly in Syria, where Russian forces were deployed to prop up the country’s longtime ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

Russia had previously ruled out a cease-fire over New Year’s Eve and struck Ukraine that night as well as on New Year’s Day with another barrage of missiles and drone attacks, killing at least four and injuring dozens.

Zelensky’s spokesman, Serhiy Nykyforov, also noted Moscow’s refusal to agree to any halt in fight last spring when the Ukrainian side proposed one for Easter.

“Last Easter, Ukraine proposed a truce; Russia ignored it,” Nykyforov said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Just before the Catholic Christmas, President Zelensky suggested that Russia take de-escalation measures. Russia ignored it as well. Moreover, on December 25, Russian strikes killed more than 10 civilians and wounded many more. It is absolutely clear that this is definitely not about caring for believers or human lives.”

He added: “It is more likely that Russia is cynically using the holiday in order to obtain certain advantages for itself. Only the withdrawal of troops of the aggressor from the territory of Ukraine can stop the aggression and will mean a real cessation of hostilities.”

Missiles rain down on Ukraine as Putin gives combative New Year speech

Earlier on Thursday, Putin spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to “reaffirm Russia’s openness to a serious dialogue” with Ukrainian authorities, according to a Kremlin readout.

But that professed readiness came with a familiar set of preconditions that Kyiv has said it will never agree to, namely the “recognition of the new territorial realities” — a reference to Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in fall 2022. Putin’s land grab, despite not fully controlling any of the four regions militarily or politically, is a violation of international law and has been widely condemned, including by the United Nations General Assembly.

During the early days of the invasion, Kirill described the war in Ukraine as a battle with “metaphysical meaning,” a sentiment often echoed by Russian state television propagandists and other staunch Kremlin supporters, who have likened the war to a “holy” and “existential” crusade that Moscow is waging against the evils of the Western world.

“And there is also a game of generosity that [Putin] is playing in public,” Stanovaya of R.Politik said. “We must not forget that in this war, Putin feels like the ‘good guy’ doing a good deed not only for himself and the ‘fraternal peoples,’ but also for the world, freeing it from the ‘hegemony’ of the United States.”

In recent sermons, Kirill has urged Russians to engage in “spiritual mobilization” to restore the “brotherly relations of two parts of a united Rus.” He also urged Russian soldiers not to be afraid to die in the war with Ukraine, linking the sacrifices of the soldiers to those of Jesus Christ.

“If someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains true to his calling and dies in the line of military duty, then he undoubtedly commits an act tantamount to a sacrifice — he sacrifices himself for others,” Kirill said in late September, days after Putin announced a mobilization drive that saw at least 300,000 men, often unprepared and poorly equipped, conscripted to fight.

“And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed,” Kirill added.

Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Russia and Ukraine, but the two churches have split over Moscow’s military aggression, beginning with the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s fomenting of a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The Russian Orthodox Church has lost significant influence in Ukraine over the years, a process that concluded in a historic schism as the Ukrainian branch officially broke ties with Moscow clerics in 2019.

Dozens of Russian soldiers killed in massive Donetsk missile strike

The bloody invasion of Ukraine and Kirill’s endorsement of the war have further divided the Orthodox Christian world. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support.

Many Ukrainians embraced Dec. 25 as Christmas for the first time last month, reflecting a desire to sever any traditions associated with Russia and bring the country closer to the West.

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv contributed to this report.