Putin orders 36-hour ceasefire on Ukrainian front lines to mark Orthodox Christmas

The Russian leader issued the instruction after a petition from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, but Kyiv has dismissed it as ‘a cynical trap and an element of propaganda’

A Ukrainian artilleryman fires towards Russian positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on December 30, 2022.
A Ukrainian artilleryman fires towards Russian positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on December 30, 2022.SAMEER AL-DOUMY (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a 36-hour ceasefire in the Ukraine war, instructing his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pass on the instruction to all combat units to cease hostilities on the front lines in observance of Orthodox Christmas. The ceasefire will begin on at 12pm local time (10am CET) on January 6 and end at midnight on January 7. Kyiv, meanwhile, has described the unprecedented move by the Kremlin as a “trap” designed by Putin’s propaganda apparatus.

The Russian leader, who rejected all calls for a cessation of hostilities to mark Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, said he had made his decision following a petition made hours earlier by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church, which uses the ancient Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas on January 7, although some Christians in Ukraine also mark the holiday on that date.

“Based on the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the combat areas, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a cease-fire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ,” Putin’s order read.

It remains unclear whether hostilities will actually halt on the front lines, which extend for around 700 miles. Ukrainian officials have previously dismissed Russian peace moves as playing for time to regroup their forces and prepare for additional attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy proposed a Russian troop withdrawal to coincide with December 25, but this was roundly rejected by Moscow.

At various points since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Putin has ordered limited and local truces to allow evacuations of civilians or for other humanitarian purposes. Thursday’s order was the first time the Russian leader has directed his troops to observe a general ceasefire in Ukraine.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak dismissed the ceasefire as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda.”

Russia’s professed readiness came with the usual preconditions: that “Kyiv authorities fulfill the well-known and repeatedly stated demands and recognize new territorial realities,” the Kremlin said, referring to Moscow’s insistence that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia and acknowledge other illegal territorial gains.

Previous attempts at peace talks have fallen at that hurdle, as Ukraine demands that Russia withdraws from occupied areas at the very least.

Kirill, Putin’s Patriarch

Patriarch Kirill has been a staunch supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine and is suspected of links to the KGB by Western intelligence agencies. The Orthodox leader has previously stated that Russian soldiers who are killed in the conflict will be cleansed of their sins. In calling for the ceasefire, Kirill addressed “all parties involved in the internal conflict,” toeing the Kremlin’s line that Putin’s designs on Ukraine represent a civil war and not the invasion of another sovereign country.

At the outset of the conflict, Kirill sent a letter to the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, John Sauka, in which he accused NATO of provoking the war and of driving a wedge between “brotherly peoples.” In April, at an event in the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces of Russia alongside Putin, he said that Russia had defeated fascism in the past and that God would aid them. In September, he called for an “end to this battle as soon as possible” and prayed that as few deaths as necessary would result from what he termed a “fratricidal” war.

Erdogan calls for “unilateral ceasefire”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Putin to implement a “unilateral ceasefire,” according to a statement from the Turkish president’s office. Putin spoke by phone with Erdogan on Thursday and the Kremlin said he had “reaffirmed Russia’s openness to a serious dialogue” with Ukrainian authorities.

Erdogan also told Zelenskyy later by telephone that Turkey was ready to mediate a “lasting peace.” Erdogan has made such an offer frequently. It has already helped broker a deal allowing Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain, and it has facilitated a prisoner swap.

Elsewhere, 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 neighboring country.”

“We have no indications that President Putin has changed his plans, his goals for Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Oslo. Ukraine’s Western allies have renewed a vow to keep supporting Kyiv for as long as it takes to defeat Russia.

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