Ukraine live briefing: Relative quiet on Orthodox Christmas; fighting continues despite cease-fire declaration

Carolers celebrate Orthodox Christmas at Holy Trinity Church in Iltsi, Ukraine, on Saturday, Jan. 7. Ukrainian men in the western Verkhovyna region wore traditional Hutsul clothing in their march thrice around the church before caroling at every house in the village for 12 days. (Zuzana Gogova/Getty Images)

On Saturday, a relatively quiet one in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky celebrated “the spiritual independence of our people” who were fighting invading Russian forces on Orthodox Christmas.

Fighting continued despite a 36-hour cease-fire declared unilaterally by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the holiday. Moscow and Kyiv have blamed each other for the continued shelling, while Ukraine, the United States and others have dismissed the cease-fire, which was to start at noon Friday, as a ploy.

The British Ministry of Defense said Saturday that fighting in Ukraine had continued “at a routine level,” and the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia said Friday that Putin’s call for a pause in hostilities should be taken “with a grain of salt. … This is the same man who said he would not invade Ukraine.”

Here is the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

1. Key developments

  • The Ukrainian president was encouraged by the turnout for Christmas services at the historic Pechersk Lavra, he said in Saturday’s nightly address. “It’s very important to continue staying in the mood that was felt today,” Zelensky said, lamenting that the feeling has been rare during Russia’s invasion. Kyiv retook the Pechersk Lavra from a church run by a Moscow-affiliated patriarchate this week, according to the Associated Press, and services were held in Ukrainian for the first time there in decades.
  • Zelensky congratulated Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for becoming House speaker, adding that Kyiv was “counting on your continued support and further U.S. assistance to bring our common victory closer.” U.S. support “has been vital for Ukraine’s success on the battlefield,” Zelensky tweeted Saturday morning. Zelensky made a historic address to Congress last month, after the GOP won control of the House, and some Republicans have pushed back on future funding for Ukraine. In October, McCarthy said that if Republicans won control of Congress, further military aid for Ukraine should not be taken for granted.
  • Putin marked Orthodox Christmas alone at the Kremlin on Saturday, Russian media said. The Russian leader took part in a religious service by himself in a Kremlin cathedral rather than attending a public Mass, and brief clips on state television showed him alongside priests, Reuters reported. In Ukraine, which has large Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic communities, worshipers marked the day in churches and with muted festivities.
  • The Biden administration announced a $2.85 billion military aid package for Ukraine, the largest drawdown from U.S. defense stockpiles to date. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the package will include additional howitzers, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, known as MRAPs. In his nightly address, Zelensky praised the military aid package and said the armored vehicles — for which Kyiv had long called — were “exactly what [Ukraine] needed.”

2. Battleground updates

  • Russia has made gains in Soledar, outside of the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, leading some Russian military bloggers to suggest that Bakhmut itself may be encircled. The Institute for the Study of War think tank disagreed in its nightly assessment Saturday, arguing that “Russian forces are still far from being within striking distance,” and said the pace of gains has been too slow, “on the order of a few hundred meters a day, at most.” Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, said on Saturday that he wanted to capture Bakhmut because it has unique defensive fortifications and possessed a network of mines that can hold troops and tanks.
  • Russia is seeking to mobilize 500,000 additional troops, a senior Ukrainian military intelligence official said, according to the Guardian. Russian officials have previously denied that they were planning further drafts. In September, the Russian military conducted an unpopular mobilization of 300,000 people. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters that “just adding more people is not going to address some of the systemic issues that the Russian military has faced throughout this campaign.”
  • The Russian Defense Ministry would comply with the cease-fire until the end of Saturday, it said in a statement. However, British and U.S. officials said that fighting had continued, and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted that “hostilities continued in Ukraine” and that some pro-Russian officials and military bloggers had criticized the cease-fire announcement.
  • “Fighting has continued at a routine level into the Orthodox Christmas period,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Saturday. “One of the most fiercely contested sectors continues to be around the town of Kremina, in Luhansk,” it added. Kremina is about 30 miles north of Bakhmut. The dense forest area there means combat has “largely devolved to dismounted infantry fighting, often at short range.”
  • U.S. instructors this month will start training Ukrainian troops to use Patriot missiles, the antiaircraft systems that the United States and Germany have pledged to supply to Ukraine. “It will take several months. So, again, Patriot is not an immediate-term capability. But we will start that training very soon,” said Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant U.S. defense secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
  • Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied Melitopol and areas in the Zaporizhzhia region have ended broadcasts of Ukrainian television in favor of Russian programming, according to the Ukrainian military. The Post could not immediately verify the military’s assertions, shared in a daily Facebook update. Russia illegally annexed eastern Ukraine this summer after an orchestrated vote that the international community has criticized as a sham election.

3. Global impact

  • Zelensky has approved restrictive sanctions against public figures who have promoted the war, an effort to isolate them “from the civilized world.” The sanctions, against people including actor Fyodor Dobronravov, soccer coach Anatoly Tymoshchuk and rapper Basta, stem from a framework built by the president’s office and former U.S. national security adviser Michael McFaul and announced in October. The head of Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, did not detail the allegedly anti-Ukrainian activities necessitating the measures, but tweeted that the restrictions against 119 people include blocking assets, a ban on transferring assets across borders and deprivation of Ukrainian state awards and ranks.
  • The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, called for unity between Ukrainians and Russians and accused “external forces” of working to divide both peoples. He told Russian media that the Orthodox Church “is the force that holds this people together.” The Kremlin said this week that the announced Christmas cease-fire was a response to an appeal from Kirill — a supporter of Putin’s who has angered many priests by vocally supporting the invasion of Ukraine.
  • The U.S. State Department imposed new sanctions Friday on top officials at two Iranian organizations who it says are responsible for the production of unmanned aerial vehicles used in Ukraine and the development of Iran’s ballistic missile programs. The State Department also called Tehran “Russia’s top military backer.”
  • Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he had been invited to visit Ukraine but told Zelensky in a call Friday that he had not decided whether to travel there, Reuters reported. Kishida also decried “Russia’s continued aggression” in Ukraine as Japan prepares to take up the rotating chair of the Group of Seven leading economies.
  • Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Angus King (I-Maine) met with Zelensky in Kyiv, touting the latest U.S. aid for Ukraine. Reed, who will return to the United States by Monday, said in a statement that “we are at a decisive moment. And that providing equipment that the Ukrainian forces need will go a long way to concluding this successfully.”
  • London plans to host a major meeting on war crimes in March, with justice officials from around the world, to support the International Criminal Court’s ability to probe alleged war crimes in Ukraine, the U.K. government announced Saturday. The meeting, co-hosted by U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, aims to increase financial and practical support being offered to the ICC.

4. From our correspondents

Theater at the edge of war: Laughs, brutal truths and a Zelensky spoof: The audience giggles and guffaws all the way through “A Play About President Zelensky,” a two-hour vaudeville that has been hailed as one of Poland’s best plays of 2022, writes The Washington Post’s Peter Marks from Krakow.

The erstwhile comedian Zelensky is now lionized as an inspirational leader across much of the globe. Here, as played by a compact look-alike named Michal Felek Felczak, he’s also the president next door, a figure not above a little roasting. In the play, he spars with a Putin double sent to taunt him, debates history with the ghost of Rasputin and ducks for cover every time an earsplitting bombing raid resounds.

The piece is one of the more robustly satirical entries in Krakow’s annual Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, a bustling, nine-day theater marathon in a country that has absorbed millions of refugees from neighboring Ukraine amid the conflict.

Mariana Alfaro and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.