Ukrainians and Russians have marked Orthodox Christmas under the shadow of war, as reports of fighting come from the eastern Donbas region despite Russian President Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to pause attacks.
Ukraine rejected the purported 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to mark Orthodox Christmas, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy describing it as a ploy by Putin to buy time to reinforce troops that have taken heavy losses this week.
The Russian defence ministry on Saturday insisted its forces were observing the ceasefire until midnight local time (21:00 GMT) which is 11pm in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, but added that its army had repelled attacks by Kyiv forces in eastern Ukraine and killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers on Friday.
In a Facebook post, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said Russian troops had shelled dozens of positions and settlements along the front line on Saturday.
President Zelenskyy said the attacks showed Moscow could not be trusted.
“They were saying something about a supposed ceasefire. The reality, however, was that Russian shells once again hit Bakhmut and other Ukrainian positions,” he said in a video address on Saturday.
No respite from fighting
Humanitarian volunteer Vasyl Liesin questioned the unilateral ceasefire.
“When Putin says there’s a ceasefire, it’s actually the other way round: there’s no ceasefire,” the 30-year-old told the Reuters news agency on Saturday.
They shelled us a lot yesterday. During the night, it was more or less calm. But that’s how it usually is: one day there’s shelling, the next day it’s calmer.”
Olha, who declined to give her surname, poured scorn on the idea of any Christmas respite from Russia’s onslaught. “I think they’re tricking us, it’s pretty obvious to me,” the 75-year-old said.
“What else can I tell you? If someone makes a promise, that someone must fulfil it. Promises are made to be kept. I just don’t understand, what do they need?”
Russia said its troops had only returned artillery fire when fired upon by Ukrainian forces.
The head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Saturday reported two civilian deaths the previous day from Russian attacks in the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut and to its north, in Krasna Hora.
In the southern Kherson region, Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Saturday that Russian forces shelled 39 times on Friday, hitting houses and apartment buildings, as well as a fire station. One person was killed and seven others were wounded.
The Ukrainian governor of the front-line eastern Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said that in the first three hours of the purported ceasefire, Russians had shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed one settlement three times.
The Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom, a leading supplier of military aid to Ukraine, said on Saturday that “fighting has continued at a routine level into the Orthodox Christmas period”.
Putin cut a lonely figure
In Moscow, 70-year-old Putin cut a lonely figure as he stood by himself at a service at a Kremlin church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, to mark Orthodox Christmas.
Putin on Saturday praised the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow’s forces fighting in Ukraine in a Christmas message designed to rally people behind his vision of modern Russia.
In his message issued by Kremlin, accompanied on the Kremlin website by an image of him standing before religious icons, Putin made it clear he saw the Russian Orthodox Church as an important stabilising force for society at a time he has cast as a historical clash between Russia and the West over Ukraine and other issues.
“It is deeply gratifying to note the enormous constructive contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations in unifying society, preserving our historical memory, educating youth and strengthening the institution of family,” said Putin.
Historic service in Kyiv
In the 1,000-year-old Lavra Cathedral in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the Christmas service on Saturday was delivered in the Ukrainian language – instead of Russian – for the first time in decades, highlighting how Ukraine is seeking to jettison Moscow’s remaining influences over religious, cultural and economic life in the country.
Security was tight at the ceremony as worshippers had their passports checked and had to walk through metal detectors. Orthodox Christians observe Christmas on January 7.
In Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and used to be seen as one of the strongest bonds tying the two nations.
Ukrainians have now largely turned their backs on the Russian Orthodox Church whose head Patriarch Kirill has backed the invasion.
Ukraine’s government on Thursday took over the administration of the revered Lavra complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from the Russian Orthodox Church and allowed the Ukrainian church to use it for the Christmas service.
Anatol Lieven of Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft said the Russian Orthodox Church is acting as “a pillar of the Russian state” in line with its ancient identity.
“[It is] a central force in Russian nationalism,” he said, adding that the church’s support for the war has created great anger among Ukrainians.
Ukrainian Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak on Saturday called Moscow’s ceasefire “fake” and accused Russian troops of firing along the entire contact line.
The United States, which announced on Friday $3.75bn in defence aid to Ukraine, called the ceasefire a “cynical” ploy.
Putin’s order to stop fighting came after Moscow suffered its worst loss of life yet, with Ukrainian attacks killing at least 89 troops in the eastern town of Makiivka.