What Can Putin's Ceasefire Offer Tell Us About The Ukraine War?
Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire among Russian troops on Friday to honour the Orthodox Christmas – but Ukraine refused to do the same.
The proposed truce is a significant moment for this long and brutal battle, although it’s worth noting that there have already been reports of shelling in the city of Bakhmut.
This has prompted speculation that Russia breached its own ceasefire within hours.
Even so, here’s what we can gauge from what would have been the first major truce throughout the whole war.
Why Did Putin Want A Truce This Week?
Moscow suggested the ceasefire would allow Russia’s Orthodox Church to observe Christmas on Jan. 7, and any fellow followers in Ukraine.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has been a keen supporter of the war, previously stating that “military duty washes away all sins,” but called for a Christmas truce shortly before Putin.
However, the idea that Ukraine would be willing to halt the war effort temporarily in favor of a religious holiday is flawed, considering the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has cut ties with its Russian counterpart since the war began.
Many Ukrainian believers also started celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 in line with Europeans this year, as another means to distance themselves from their neighbors.
But the ceasefire was not just about religion.
The BBC noted that Putin’s ceasefire fits with the domestic narrative that Russian soldiers are the “good guys” and that the West are “threatening Russia.”
“The truce is also a handy tool that can be used to demonize Ukraine — as the Ukrainians have dismissed the proposal, Moscow will claim that Kyiv does not respect religious believers and has no desire for peace,” reporters Will Vernon and Samuel Horti said.
CNN reported that the truce also came after Putin spoke with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, who has tried to mediate between Russia and Ukraine.
After their talks, the Russian president said he was open to “serious dialogue” regarding Ukraine, but Kyiv has to accept “new territorial realities” going forward.
Why Did Ukraine Reject The Ceasefire?
While it may seem bizarre that Ukraine would opt not to have a break from the war, Kyiv’s response to the ceasefire was less than enthusiastic.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the ceasefire was only meant to be a “cover” for Russia to resupply and stop Ukrainian advances in the eastern Donbas region.
Zelenskyy said: “What will this accomplish? Only another increase in the casualty count.”
Serhiy Haidai, who leads the Luhansk regional military administration, told Ukrainian media: “They [Russia] just want to get some kind of pause for a day or two, to pull even more reserves, bring some more ammo. Russia cannot be trusted. Not a single word they say.”
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also claimed on Twitter that Russia has to leave the “occupied territories” of Ukraine before any “temporary truce.”
What Does The West Think?
Kyiv’s Western allies seemed to feel the same way as Ukraine.
U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said such a pause would do “nothing to advance the prospects of peace.”
A 36 hour pause of Russian attacks will do nothing to advance the prospects for peace.
Russia must permanently withdraw its forces, relinquish its illegal control of Ukrainian territory and end its barbaric attacks against innocent civilians.
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) January 5, 2023
Similarly, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that the promise a ceasefire would not bring “either freedom or security.”
Hours after Russia’s announcement, Germany said it would follow the U.S. and offer a Patriot air defense missile system to Kyiv along with armou=red vehicles.
France is also sending armoured fighting vehicles.
U.S. President Joe Biden suggested that Putin was just trying to find “oxygen” through this proposal.
Responding to reporters in the White House, he said: “I’m reluctant to respond to anything that Putin says. I found it interesting that he was willing to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches...on the 25th and New Year’s.”
Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, was quick to retaliate to Biden on Facebook: “All this means [is] that Washington is set on fighting with us ‘to the last Ukrainian’ and the fate of Ukraine’s people does not worry the Americans at all.”
Why Would Putin Need ‘Oxygen?’
Biden’s claim that the Russian president is trying to buy time touches on the series of failures Russia has faced recently.
Not only did Moscow lose hold of its Ukrainian land grabs from the early days of the war when Kyiv’s successful counteroffensive swept through in the autumn, but missile strikes have started to reach deep inside Russia.
Moscow has admitted that at least 89 Russians were killed on New Year’s Eve — the most important date in the Russian calendar.
“Putin really does not want a repetition of that on Orthodox Christmas Day,“ political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya tweeted.
The attack itself has led to backlash from respected Russian military figures too, especially as Moscow tried to blame its own soldiers for the missile strike.
The U.K.’s Ministry of Defense also shone a light on some of the divisions within Russia at the moment in its latest update.
The Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) were two of the four illegally annexed Ukrainian regions Russia claims now belongs to Moscow.
However, both areas have effectively been controlled by Russia since 2014.
As the Ministry of Defense points out, the “status and identities” of both regions “likely remain divisive within the Russian system.”
It adds: “Even before the February 2022 invasion, these territories represented a significant drain on Russian finances.
“Now the Kremlin has overtly committed to supporting them, they will likely constitute a large political, diplomatic and financial cost for Russia which will last well beyond the current phase of the conflict.”
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 6 January 2023
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/Kl5dKmec5D
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/tAU08v6IFp
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) January 6, 2023