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For Orthodox Christmas, Russia offers a self-serving cease-fire but no peace

Ukrainian troops attend a service at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv on Friday as Orthodox Christmas celebrations begin. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russia complained Friday that Ukraine refused to adhere to an Orthodox Christmas cease-fire — though Kyiv never agreed to the unilateral 36-hour truce and dismissed it as a ploy for Moscow to regroup. Each side accused the other of continued shelling ahead of the Saturday holiday.

“The ghouls in Kyiv refused the cease-fire even on Orthodox Christmas. Clearly, they are our non-brothers there,” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the RT media organization and one of Russia’s leading propagandists, wrote on her Telegram blog.

“The more ironclad is our obligation to liberate those who are our brothers,” Simonyan continued, echoing a trope suggesting that the Russian forces are trying to save Russian-speaking Ukrainians from alleged persecution by a “Nazi regime” in Kyiv.

The gripes of Simonyan and other pro-war Russian officials and commentators overlooked an obvious truth: Russian President Vladimir Putin could end the war at any moment simply by withdrawing his invading forces from occupied territory and respecting Kyiv’s internationally recognized borders.

Instead, the Kremlin has continued to profess that it is ready for “a dialogue” with Kyiv, on the condition that Ukraine cedes territories in eastern Ukraine that Russia illegally claims to have annexed. Putin reiterated that position in a phone call Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Putin said he had declared the cease-fire to accommodate churchgoers, but Kyiv immediately rejected it as a cynical public relations stunt that would allow Putin to appear merciful to Russian audiences, while giving his battered troops a chance to rest from fierce fighting in bitter cold temperatures.

“What does a bunch of little Kremlin devils have to do with the Christian holiday of Christmas?” tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council. “Who will believe an abomination that kills children, fires at maternity homes, tortures prisoners? A cease-fire? It’s lies and hypocrisy. We will bite you in the singing silence of the Ukrainian night.”

The Kremlin stressed in a statement Thursday that Putin’s cease-fire declaration was answering a plea from Russia’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Kirill, a fierce supporter of the war who has blessed Russian troops, saying that dying on the front lines is a sacrifice that would wash away their sins.

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An air-raid siren blared in Kyiv, disrupting Orthodox Christmas preparations on Friday, but no explosions were heard in the capital.

Shortly after the cease-fire was due to come into force at noon Friday, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said that Russian shells had hit residential areas in the eastern Donetsk region.

Around the same time, Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of the military administration in Kherson, in southern Ukraine, said one person was dead and four injured after a Russian attack.

The exact timing of the attacks was unclear.

The exiled mayor of occupied Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ivan Fedorov, reported “a loud explosion near the railway station,” citing reports from residents.

Meanwhile, fighting appeared to continue in Soledar, a city in the Donetsk region located near Bakhmut, which has seen some of the bloodiest combat in recent months.

Telegram channels affiliated with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, who have been leading the offensive in the area, posted videos Friday evening purporting to show the group’s fighters entering Soledar. The Washington Post was not able to independently verify the claim.

The Wagner group, bankrolled by St. Petersburg restaurateur-turned-warlord Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has been trying to seize control of Bakhmut for months with incremental gains and major losses, despite the nearly destroyed city lacking obvious strategic value.

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A White House official said Thursday that the United States believes Prigozhin’s “obsession” with Bakhmut has been driven by monetary motives, namely taking control of salt and gypsum from mines in the town.

Wagner mercenaries and Prigozhin have been previously accused of exploiting resources in Syria, the Central African Republic and Sudan, among other countries.

North of Ukraine, in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko was seen Friday touring tent camps that house the Russian military. Lukashenko, one of the few world leaders to voice full-throated support for Putin’s invasion, has allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine while resisting Russian pressure to send Belarusian soldiers into combat.

Lukashenko’s visit to the base in Baranovichi comes a day after his military officials pledged to build up a regional military force with Russia and hold joint drills and combat aircraft exercises.

Russian officials said Friday that the cease-fire started, as ordered by Putin, at noon Moscow time.

Shortly afterward, the Russian Defense Ministry said that despite the cease-fire, “the Kyiv regime continued shelling settlements and positions of Russian troops,” hitting posts in the Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk areas. It said Russian forces returned fire.

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In Berlin, the Russian Embassy condemned a decision by Germany to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles long coveted by Kyiv. The move signaled a shift in German policy as Chancellor Olaf Scholz has long been reluctant to deliver combat vehicles, arguing that such a decision needed to be coordinated with other NATO members.

The Russian Embassy warned that the decision “will seriously affect German-Russian relations” and is seen as “a further step toward the escalation of the conflict.”

“It is particularly cynical that the decision was made shortly before the Orthodox Christmas, which is highly revered in the Christian world, and against the background of the armistice unilaterally declared by the Russian President in this context,” the embassy said in a statement.

Continual military aid from Ukraine’s allies poses a problem for Putin. His ability to replenish high-tech military equipment has been hindered by international sanctions, forcing him to seek help from countries like Iran, which has supplied Russia with hundreds of Shahed drones used to damage Ukrainian infrastructure.

Valeriy Khudyakov, 38, who fled Kherson last spring while it was under Russian occupation and now works as a personal trainer in a gym in Kyiv, said Friday that he had no expectation Moscow’s brief cease-fire would halt the constant shelling of his home region. “Whatever Mr. Putin says is a lie,” Khudyakov said. “He’s getting exhausted. His military is getting exhausted.”

Siobhan O’Grady in Kyiv contributed to this report.