Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his armed forces to observe a unilateral 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine this weekend for the Orthodox Christmas holiday, the first such sweeping truce move in the nearly 11-month-old war.
Putin did not appear to make his ceasefire order conditional on a Ukrainian agreement to follow suit, and it wasn't clear whether hostilities would actually halt on the 1,100-kilometre front line or elsewhere. Ukrainian officials have previously dismissed Russian peace moves as playing for time to regroup their forces and prepare for additional attacks.
While not necessarily the final official word back from Kyiv, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted following this latest move that Russian forces "must leave the occupied territories — only then will it have a 'temporary truce.' Keep hypocrisy to yourself."
At various points during the war that started on Feb. 24, 2022, Russian authorities have ordered limited and local truces to allow evacuations of civilians or other humanitarian purposes. Thursday's order was the first time Putin has directed his troops to observe a ceasefire throughout Ukraine.
"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 ceasefire 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 stated, addressed to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and published on the Kremlin's website.
U.S. President Joe Biden declined to comment directly but said at the White House on Thursday it was "interesting" that Putin was ready to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches on Christmas and New Year's. "I think he's trying to find some oxygen," he said.
Putin acted at the suggestion of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who proposed a truce from noon Friday through midnight Saturday Moscow time. The Orthodox Church, which uses the ancient Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 — later than the Gregorian calendar — although some Christians in Ukraine also mark the holiday on that date.
Podolyak had earlier dismissed Kirill's call as "a cynical trap and an element of propaganda." President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had proposed a Russian troop withdrawal earlier, before Dec. 25, but Russia rejected it.
Kirill has previously justified the war as part of Russia's "metaphysical struggle" to prevent a liberal ideological encroachment from the West.
Independent political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said Putin's ceasefire order is intended to make him look reasonable and interested in peace.
The move "fits well into Putin's logic, in which Russia is acting on the right side of history and fighting for justice," she said.
"We must not forget that in this war, Putin feels like a 'good guy,' doing good not only for himself and the 'brotherly nations,' but also for the world he's freeing from the 'hegemony' of the United States," Stanovaya, founder of the independent R.Politik think tank, wrote on Telegram.
She also linked Putin's move to Ukrainian forces' recent strike on Makiivka that killed at least 89 Russian servicemen. "He really doesn't want to get something like that for Christmas," the analyst said.
On the rainy streets of Kyiv, some questioned the Russians' sincerity in discussing a truce.