Russian, Ukrainian forces exchange artillery fire despite Putin’s truce order

Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its troops to stop shooting for a unilateral truce that was firmly rejected by Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to observe Orthodox Christmas. Kyiv has said it has no intention to stop fighting, rejecting the purported truce as a stunt by Moscow to buy time to reinforce troops that have taken heavy losses this week.

“What ceasefire? Can you hear?” said a Ukrainian soldier using the nom de guerre Vyshnya, as an explosion rang out in the distance at the front line near Kreminna in Eastern Ukraine.

“What do they want to achieve if they keep on shooting? We know, we have learnt not to trust them.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire from noon Moscow time “along the entire line of contact” in the conflict, but said Ukraine kept up shelling populated areas and military positions.

A local resident pushes his bicycle down a street past tank traps and rubble in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Friday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Reuters journalists heard explosions, which Ukrainian troops described as incoming Russian rocket fire. Ukrainians fired back from tanks.

The Ukrainians said it was quieter than many other days because snowy weather had made it hard to fly drones and spot targets.

“The situation today is exactly the same as yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week and last month,” said one, concealing his face with a scarf. “There is no point in talking to them, in believing in their promises, orders and decrees.”

It was not immediately possible to establish whether there was any reduction in the intensity of fighting at other locations.

WATCH | Ukraine rejects Putin’s ceasefire request: 

Ukraine rejects Putin’s ceasefire request, says it’s a cover

One witness in the Russian-occupied regional capital, Donetsk, close to the front, described outgoing artillery fired from pro-Russian positions on the city’s outskirts after the truce was meant to take effect.

The Ukrainian governor of the front-line eastern Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said that in the first three hours of the purported ceasefire the Russians had shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed one settlement three times.

Russia’s Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan. 7. The main Orthodox Church in Ukraine has rejected the authority of Moscow, and many Ukrainians have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, as in the West.

Putin attended a service by himself inside a Kremlin cathedral rather than joining other worshippers in a public celebration. State television showed two live clips of Putin inside the gilded Cathedral of the Annunciation as Orthodox priests conducted the midnight service, known as the Divine Liturgy.

Fighting vehicles for Ukraine

Washington unveiled its latest $3.75-billion US package of military aid for Ukraine and allies affected by the war, for the first time sending Kyiv the U.S. army’s workhorse Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

That caps a week in which both Germany and France also pledged armoured vehicles, finally fulfilling one of Kyiv’s most urgent requests from its allies, for armour to defeat Russian tanks in mechanized battles.

WATCH | People in Kyiv skeptical of Putin’s ceasefire: 

People on the streets of Kyiv skeptical of Putin’s ceasefire

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who pleaded for the Bradleys in Washington last month on his first trip abroad since the war began, said on Friday they were “exactly what is needed.”

The U.S. package also includes Sea Sparrow air defence missiles, and Germany’s includes Patriot missiles, which Washington offered last month.

Shortly before the ceasefire was meant to start, rockets slammed into a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk close to the eastern front line, damaging 14 homes, though with no casualties as many people have fled.

“It’s bad, very bad. We need to pressure [Russian forces], get them to leave, maybe more air defence systems would help. This happens often, not only on festive occasions. Every other day,” said Oleksandr, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack.

One rescue worker was killed and four others injured after Russian forces shelled a fire department in the southern city of Kherson before the deadline early on Friday, the regional governor said. Reuters could not immediately verify this.

‘Christmas as cover’

Zelenskyy rejected the ceasefire out of hand as a ploy for Russia to buy time after sustaining crippling losses at the front line. Scores of Russian troops were killed in one attack over the New Year weekend.

Laura Cooper, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence focusing on Russia and Ukraine, remarked to reporters in Washington on Friday that Putin’s statement about a ceasefire needed to be taken with a “grain of salt.”

“This is the same man who said he would not invade Ukraine,” Cooper said.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, starting a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of Ukrainians. With weapons and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has driven Russia back from some of its territory but battles are raging in the east and south.

Ukraine’s military General Staff said its soldiers repelled repeated Russian attacks over the past day, with Moscow focused on trying to take towns in Donetsk.

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