Putin Calls a 36-Hour Cease-Fire, but Ukraine and U.S. Are Skeptical
The Kremlin on Thursday announced a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine to mark the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, which would be the broadest truce by far since Russia invaded in February. But Ukraine’s leaders dismissed the idea as cynical posturing by a ruthless and untrustworthy enemy.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered the cease-fire, from noon Friday until midnight Saturday, the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry said in separate statements. “Given that a large number of citizens practicing Orthodoxy resides in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to announce a cease-fire and give them an opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve and the day of Christ’s birth,” the Kremlin said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine responded with derision in his nightly video message, though he did not explicitly rule out the idea. After switching from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to address the Russian people directly, he spoke of those who “sent all of your people to be slaughtered” and “do not strive for peace.”
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover” to pause Ukrainian advances “and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilized troops closer to our positions,” he said. “Everyone in the world knows how the Kremlin uses lulls in the war to continue the war with new force,” he added.
Russia has previously rejected — and, according to Ukraine, has repeatedly violated — limited, local cease-fires intended to allow humanitarian evacuations and aid deliveries in besieged places like Mariupol.
The Kremlin’s announcement comes as Russian forces, after severe setbacks, are scrambling to build defenses, ferry new conscripts to the front and reconstitute shattered units. As the heavy cost of what was first billed as a quick and easy war comes home to ordinary Russians, Mr. Putin has become increasingly attentive to domestic public concerns about the conflict. At the same time, his government, isolated internationally, has tried to reshape opinions abroad.
In Washington, President Biden said it appeared that Mr. Putin was “trying to find some oxygen” with the cease-fire announcement. “I am reluctant to respond to anything Putin says,” Mr. Biden said. “I found it interesting he was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches on the 25th and New Year’s.”
The United States and Germany, meanwhile, announced on Thursday that they would supply Ukraine with armored fighting vehicles for the first time, a day after France did so, though they did not cite numbers. Ukrainian officials have pleaded for months for armored vehicles like those now promised, the American Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the French AMX-10 RC and the German Marder, as well as Western tanks, which Ukraine’s allies have so far refused to give.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, after a phone call with Mr. Biden, said Germany would also send to Ukraine a Patriot missile system, the most sophisticated American-made air-defense weapon, two weeks after the president promised to give Ukraine its first Patriot system.
After starting to lose ground in late summer, Russian forces shifted to bombarding civilian targets in Ukraine, destroying electricity and heating systems and making air defenses critical for Ukrainians to survive the winter. There has been little movement recently on the battlefield, but that is expected to change in the coming months, putting a premium on armored vehicles.
Political and military analysts characterized Mr. Putin’s announced cease-fire as a public relations ploy that he would try to exploit no matter how Ukraine responds. If Kyiv agrees to a cease-fire, they said, it would allow Mr. Putin to present himself as a peacemaker.
If Ukraine ignores it, Russia could try to claim higher moral ground — despite the facts that Russia started the war and its forces have committed many documented atrocities — and use continued hostilities to vilify Ukraine in the eyes of Russian and world opinion.
Pavel Luzhin, a Russian military analyst, said the Kremlin “needs a break to partially restore its military power” but, knowing that Kyiv is unlikely to accept a cease-fire, is playing to a domestic audience. “The Kremlin is going to demonstrate to Russians, who are mostly tired from the war, why the Russian leadership needs to continue fighting,” he said.
In recent days, Ukraine has claimed to have used long-range artillery to inflict huge casualties in attacks on several concentrations of Russian troops behind the front lines, and the Russians have confirmed heavy losses in one location. Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, said Mr. Putin could be trying to avoid another such disaster during the holiday.
Within hours, some of Mr. Putin’s most hawkish allies appeared to be undercutting his plan. Some pro-war Russian nationalists dismissed the cease-fire idea out of hand, underlining the depth of mutual animosity.
“We — Russian soldiers and volunteers — don’t want any compromises,” an influential military blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky, wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “We want to kill every person dressed in the uniform of the enemy’s army.”
The most prominent Kremlin proxy in occupied Ukraine, Denis Pushilin, wrote on Telegram that “there can be no talk of any truce,” and that a cease-fire “doesn’t mean that we will not respond to the opponent’s provocations.” Mr. Pushilin, who was the head of the self-proclaimed breakaway state in the Donetsk region that Russia has claimed to annex, added that the cease-fire applied only to Orthodox Christians, not to the leadership of Ukraine — possibly a reference to Mr. Zelensky’s being Jewish.
Some Ukrainians observe Christmas on Dec. 25, especially in the western part of the country, where there is a significant Roman Catholic population. But Orthodox churches, which still use the Julian calendar rather than the newer Gregorian calendar, mark it on Jan. 7, which falls this year on Saturday.
Russia’s announcement came hours after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, called for a cease-fire to allow Orthodox Christians on both sides of the front line to attend church services. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has positioned himself as a mediator in the conflict, spoke to Mr. Putin on Thursday and also called for a cease-fire.
Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, told reporters that the Kremlin’s announcement was “cynical.” He added, “I think we know better than to take anything we see or hear from Russia at face value.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, spurned the Kremlin’s cease-fire proposal in a statement as a “propaganda gesture” and a “banal trick.”
“After 10 months of genocide, after hundreds of destroyed Ukrainian churches, isn’t it too late for the Kremlin to think of God?” Ukraine’s defense ministry asked on social media. The foreign ministry also said Mr. Putin’s proposal “cannot and should not be taken seriously.”
Ukrainian officials have already accused Russia of marring the run-up to Orthodox Christmas with continued attacks on civilians. A Russian strike on Thursday in the Kherson region killed a family of three, including a 12-year-old boy, that was preparing to celebrate Christmas together at home, officials said.
Reporting was contributed by Alina Lobzina, Megan Specia, Cassandra Vinograd, Anushka Patil, John Ismay and Safak Timur.