A brief ceasefire declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin but dismissed by Ukraine as an empty gesture was due to have taken effect on Friday in what would be the first full pause since Moscow’s invasion in February 2022.
Putin’s order to stop fighting for 36 hours during the Orthodox Christmas came after Moscow suffered its worst reported loss of life of the war and as Ukraine’s allies pledged to send armoured vehicles and a second Patriot air defence battery to aid Kyiv.
A senior Ukraine official said shortly after the supposed start of Russia’s pause in fighting that Moscow’s forces had struck the southern city of Kherson in an attack that left several people dead or wounded.
“There were at least four explosions … They talk about a ceasefire. This is who we are at war with,” said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the presidential administration.
He did not say whether the strikes themselves had occurred before or after the ceasefire’s start time.
Both countries celebrate Orthodox Christmas and the Russian leader’s order came following ceasefire calls from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill, a staunch Putin supporter.
The halt was to begin on Friday (0900 GMT) and last until the end of Saturday (2100 GMT), the Kremlin said.
Ukraine has dismissed it as a strategy by Russia to gain time to regroup its forces and bolster its defences following a series of battlefield reversals.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said the unilateral ceasefire “cannot and should not be taken seriously” while a close advisor said Russia “must leave the occupied territories” for there to be any real let up in hostilities.
US President Joe Biden was equally dismissive.
“He was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches” on December 25 and on New Year’s Day, he said. “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen.”
And British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly wrote on Twitter: “A 36 hour pause of Russian attacks will do nothing to advance the prospects for peace.”
Since the invasion began on February 24 last year, Russia has occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but Kyiv has reclaimed swathes of its territory and this week claimed a New Year’s strike that killed scores of Moscow’s troops.
The Kremlin said Thursday that during a telephone conversation with Erdogan, Putin had told the Turkish leader Moscow was ready for dialogue if Kyiv recognises “new territorial realities.”
He was referring to Russia’s claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions – despite not fully controlling them.
Kirill, 76, made his ceasefire appeal “so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and on the day of the Nativity of Christ,” he said on the church’s official website Thursday.
The Kremlin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine resulted in many clerics who had continued to remain loyal to Kirill turning away from Moscow.
In May, the Moscow-backed branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church severed ties with Russia, citing his lack of condemnation of the fighting.
News of Putin’s ceasefire order came as Germany and the United States pledged to provide additional military aid for Kyiv, with Biden saying the promised equipment comes at a “critical point” in the war.
Washington and Berlin said in a joint statement that they will respectively provide Kyiv with Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
And “Germany will join the United States in supplying an additional Patriot air defence battery to Ukraine,” the statement said, doubling the number of the advanced systems that have been promised to Kyiv.
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced renewed calls to deliver Leopard light tanks, long sought by Kyiv, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the delivery of French-made AMX-10 RC light tanks to Ukraine.
Putin’s ceasefire order came a day after Moscow lifted its reported toll in its worst single reported loss from a Ukrainian strike to 89 dead.
Ukraine’s military strategic communications unit has said nearly 400 Russian soldiers died in the town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, held by pro-Russian forces. Russian commentators have said the death toll may be far higher than the Kremlin’s figures.