Putin orders 36-hour ceasefire by Russian forces – Ukraine rejects it as ‘hypocrisy’

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered Moscow’s forces to undertake a 36-hour ceasefire across the “entire” frontline of their invasion of Ukraine – to allow people to attend services on Orthodox Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Mr Putin called on Kyiv to do the same, something immediately rejected by an advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mikhailo Podolyak, who tweeted that Russia needs to leave the territory it is occupying "only then will it have a 'temporary truce'”.

“Keep hypocrisy to yourself," he added, claiming that Moscow wanted to secure additional time to reduce the intensity of military clashes in order to regroup and mobilise additional forces "A banal trick. There is not the slightest desire to end the war in this," Podolyak said.

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The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, had earlier suggested a truce from 12pm on Friday until 12am on Sunday.

"Taking into account the appeal of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, I instruct the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation to introduce a ceasefire regime along the entire line of contact of the parties in Ukraine from 12pm on 6 January 2023 to midnight on 7 January 2023,” Mr Putin said, in a statement released by the Kremlin. Timings in such statements are given in local time.

"Proceeding from the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and allow them to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on Christmas Day," he added.

In the wake of Patriarch Kirill’s suggestion of a temporary truce, Mr Podolyak had also dismissed it as "a cynical trap and an element of propaganda".

The Russian Orthodox Church uses the ancient Julian calendar and celebrates Christmas on January 7 - later than the Gregorian calendar - although some Christians in Ukraine also mark the holiday on that date.

Mr Kirill has previously justified the war as part of Russia's "metaphysical struggle" to prevent a liberal ideological encroachment from the West. Mr Podolyak, cast the Russian Orthodox Church as a "war propagandist".

US President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that Mr Putin was clearly "trying to find some oxygen" by floating the potential truce.

Given the Ukrainian response, there appears little chance that the order from the Kremlin, made to Mr Putin’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, will bring any breakthrough in halting the war that began nearly 11 months ago with Moscow's invasion. Mr Zelensky had previously proposed a full Russian troop withdrawal earlier, before 25 December, but Russia rejected it.

Mr Putin spoke by phone with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, with Mr Erdogan telling his Russian counterpart that peace efforts in the Russia-Ukraine war should be supported by a unilateral ceasefire and a "vision for a fair solution, " according to the Turkish leader’s office. The Kremlin said Mr Putin "reaffirmed Russia's openness to a serious dialogue" with Ukrainian authorities.

But that professed readiness came with the usual preconditions: that "Kyiv authorities fulfil the well-known and repeatedly stated demands and recognise new territorial realities", the Kremlin said, referring to Moscow's insistence that Ukraine recognises Crimea as part of Russia – with it having been annexed by Moscow in 2014 in a move comdemned as illegal by the international community.

It would also include acknowledgement of four regions that Russia seized as part of the current invasion – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – which the Kremlin claims was made legitimate by referendums held in September, also widely condemned. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions.

Kyiv has consistently stated that Russia needs to respect its territorial integrity and has made that a non-negotiable part of any possible peace talks.

Before the announcement of the order from Moscow, the head of Nato said he detected no change in Moscow's stance on Ukraine, insisting that the Kremlin "wants a Europe where they can control a neighbouring country".

"We have no indications that President Putin has changed his plans, his goals for Ukraine," Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said in Oslo.

The fighting in Ukraine has increasingly become a war of attrition in recent weeks, as winter sets in. The Ukrainian military said on Thursday that Russian forces were focused on an offensive in the Bakhmut sector of the Donetsk region, but their attacks in the Avdiivka and Kupiansk sectors were unsuccessful.

Ukraine's military said it estimated 800 Russian soldiers were killed in the past day, mostly in fighting in Donetsk. The figure - which would signify a huge loss of life for a single day - could not be independently confirmed.

Bakhmut, now largely in ruins after months Russian bombardment, is located on a supply line between Donetsk and Luhansk. It is significant as control of the Bakhmut, could give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities – Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

The Luhansk governor, Serhiy Haidai, said he expected fighting to intensify across the eastern front as temperatures drop further and the ground freezes. "Then the opportunity to use heavy equipment will open up," he said. Asked on national television about the possibility of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in that region said that it should be forgotten that the area is also "the defence line... the occupiers have very fortified positions there. Therefore, it will not be easy to liberate the Luhansk region," he said.

Kyiv, particularly President Zelensky has repeatedly asked for Western nations to send more – and heavier weaponry and equipment to support his nation. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said Washington was considering sending lighter Bradley Fighting Vehicles – which has a powerful gin – to Ukraine.

The United States is preparing another package of weapons, which could be announced in coming days on top of billions of dollars in security assistance so far pledged to Ukraine.

Also on Wednesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said his government would send light AMX-10 RC armoured combat vehicles, essentially a smaller, lighter tank, to help its war effort.

Mr Zelensky thanked Mr Macron but said: "There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with [heavy] Western tanks."

In Germany, the announcement by Mr Macron brought renewed calls from within Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition for Berlin to step up its support. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the parliamentary defence committee and a member of Mr Scholz's junior coalition partner Free Democrats (FDP), called on Berlin to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles and train Ukrainians to use them.

Sara Nanni, the security policy spokesperson from the Greens party, another coalition partner, said Germany should send Marders and Leopard tanks.

The latest economic figures from Kyiv, show country suffered its sharpest economic decline in more than 30 years in 2022 because of the war – a 30.4 per cent drop in gross domestic product. The economy minister said foreign aid and the people's "unbreakable spirit" helped prevent a worse scenario.

Reuters contributed to this report