Ukraine live briefing: Zelensky responds to Putin holiday cease-fire order; U.S. and Germany to send combat vehicles to Ukraine

Smoke rises from strikes on the front-line city of Soledar, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, as seen from Bakhmut, Ukraine, Jan. 5. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his invading forces to implement a unilateral cease-fire for Orthodox Christmas, beginning at noon Friday and continuing through Saturday, according to a Kremlin statement.

Putin said he was acting on an appeal from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and called on Ukraine to join the temporary truce — which would be the first comprehensive cease-fire since the conflict began.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that Putin’s order will only increase the death toll. “Everyone in the world knows how the Kremlin uses respites at war to continue the war with renewed vigor,” he said.

Also on Thursday, the United States and Germany announced they would send armored combat vehicles to Ukraine, in a major shift after months of turning down Kyiv’s requests for the vehicles. France said Wednesday it would provide Ukraine with an unspecified number of light tanks.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

1. Putin orders Orthodox Christmas cease-fire

  • Zelensky responded to Putin’s cease-fire order in his nightly address: “Even when your missiles and drones are not hitting our cities, the terror in the occupied territories continues. You don’t give Ukrainians any respite. People are tortured, electrocuted, raped. This continues every day while your soldiers are on our soil.”
  • Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of Putin’s, angered many priests by vocally supporting the invasion of Ukraine. The war has opened a rift in the Orthodox Church, pitting the Russian wing and its pro-Kremlin patriarch against Orthodox leaders in Kyiv and around the globe. Following the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said congregations could celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 instead, as many Ukrainians seek to dissociate themselves from Russia. Kirill’s call for a truce this weekend was met with derision from Kyiv.
  • President Biden told reporters Thursday he is “reluctant to respond to anything Putin says.” He added: “I found it interesting that [Putin] was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches on the 25th and New Year’s. I think he’s trying to find some oxygen.”
  • Serhiy Nykyforov, Zelensky’s spokesman, said a cessation of hostilities would come only when Russia withdraws its troops from Ukrainian territory. Russia “must leave the occupied territories,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a tweet following Putin’s announcement. “Only then will it have a ‘temporary truce.’” Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security secretary, issued a threat to “a bunch of little Kremlin devils”: “We will bite you in the singing silence of the Ukrainian night.”
  • Putin’s cease-fire order represents “a sign that Putin and his army are getting weaker,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, said in a tweet on Thursday. “He wants to use any pause in the destruction of his soldiers and equipment,” he wrote, adding that negotiations with Moscow “are possibly only on the issues of reparations and contributions for the damages caused to Ukraine and compensations for dozens of thousands lost lives.”
  • Limited, temporary cease-fires earlier in the conflict, such as an agreement meant to facilitate evacuations from the devastated port city of Mariupol in March, did not hold. Russia has a history of violating cease-fires in Syria as well.
  • Denis Pushilin, head of the separatist, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, said “there could be no truce.” Putin’s decision means the cessation of “offensive actions on our side” while Russia would continue to respond to “enemy provocations.” “This doesn’t mean … we will give the enemy any chance to improve their positions on the line of contact during these festive hours,” Pushilin added.

2. Other key developments

  • The joint announcement from Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their countries would send armored combat vehicles to Ukraine came after the two leaders spoke over the phone Thursday. Germany will transfer Marder infantry fighting vehicles, while the United States will provide Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the statement said. Both countries will train Ukrainian forces on the systems, it added. U.S. officials said the Bradleys could be included in a weapons package to be announced as soon as this week. Germany will also supply a Patriot air defense battery to Ukraine.
  • A French official confirmed Thursday that France would send AMX-10 RC armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine. “Modern Western armored vehicles, Western-type tanks” are key to ending the war, Zelensky said in his nightly address Wednesday.
  • The war in Ukraine has led to the largest drop in the country’s GDP since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said in a statement Thursday. Ukraine’s gross domestic product had fallen by an estimated 30.4 percent by the end of 2022, according to the Economy Ministry — although the figure is better than previously feared.

3. Battleground updates

  • The first inmates recruited to fight for Russia’s Wagner mercenary group have received the pardons they were promised after completing six months of fighting in Ukraine, the group’s founder said. “They worked off their contract. They worked with honor, with dignity,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin told journalists Thursday, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Last month, the Biden administration said the group had received infantry rockets and missiles directly from North Korea. The United States estimates that Wagner has 50,000 troops in Ukraine, 40,000 of whom were convicts serving prison sentences when they were enlisted.
  • Russia is likely to have moved its long-range bombers to areas further away from Ukraine, the British Defense Ministry said Thursday, after some of its long-range and medium bomber aircraft were damaged during two separate attacks attributed to Ukraine last month. The ministry added that the long-range planes would still be able to fire cruise missiles into Ukraine because of the range of both the aircraft and weapons, but it noted that this could increase the maintenance stress on the planes.
  • Sixty percent of the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut has been destroyed by shelling, according to the Ukrainian head of the Donetsk military administration. The city lies in the eastern Donetsk region, which is largely held by Russia, and Russian troops have been pushing hard to take the city. The fighting around Bakhmut “is still quite hot,” a senior U.S. official said Wednesday, adding that “what we’re seeing in Bakhmut we should expect to see elsewhere along the front, that there will be continued fighting in the coming months.”

4. From our correspondents

Tinder in the trenches: How war has changed love and sex in Ukraine. When a 30-year-old Ukrainian soldier racked up 200 matches on Tinder in Kharkiv, he was enticed by the potential for a hookup. But as he started meeting up with dates, he quickly realized he lacked his normal charm and didn’t have the energy for conversation. The death and destruction of his daily life at war weighed on him too heavily.

Russia’s invasion has upended all aspects of life in Ukraine, and intimacy is no exception, write Jeff Stein, Samantha Schmidt and Kostiantyn Khudov. “It’s a real trauma, and trauma and romance don’t go together,” said Alexander Kolomiychuk, a sex therapist in Kyiv. “In war, there is no time for pleasure. There is no time for recreation.”

Erin Cunningham, Zeynep Karatas, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Kamila Hrabchuk and Rick Noack contributed to this report.