Ukraine scorns Russia's latest truce declaration as an attempt to regroup
Kremlin said Saturday its forces would maintain ceasefire for Orthodox Christmas
Russia's Defence Ministry said on Saturday its forces in Ukraine would maintain a ceasefire it unilaterally declared to observe Orthodox Christmas until midnight, despite Ukraine rejecting the truce offer.
In its daily briefing, the ministry said its troops had only returned artillery fire when fired upon by Ukrainian forces, whom it accused of shelling civilian areas, something Russian forces are often accused of doing by Kyiv.
Exchanges of artillery fire were reported in Kreminna and Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine after the start of Moscow's order for its forces to maintain a unilateral truce from midday Friday until the end of Saturday.
Ukraine rejected Moscow's ceasefire offer as a cynical trick designed to give Russian forces the chance to rest and re-arm, and said it would continue to try to recapture territory seized by Moscow.
'Nothing has changed'
Service members of the 80th Separate Air Assault Brigade positioned near Kreminna in the Donbas region said there were no signs of a ceasefire.
"Nothing has changed since midday, the shelling continues. They wanted some quiet and tried to mislead us, hoping we would believe it. They have been lying all the time since 2014 saying 'ceasefire, ceasefire' while shelling us," said a soldier who introduced himself with his nom de guerre, Psikho.
"The situation today is exactly the same as yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week and last month. Nothing has changed despite the enemy apparently declaring a ceasefire over Christmas," said Mykola, the unit commander.
President Vladimir Putin on Saturday praised the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow's forces fighting in Ukraine in an Orthodox Christmas message.
The Kremlin issued Putin's message after the Russian leader attended an Orthodox Christmas Eve service on his own inside a Kremlin cathedral rather than joining other worshippers in a public celebration.
In his message, accompanied on the Kremlin website by an image of him standing before religious icons, Putin made it clear that he saw the Russian Orthodox Church as an important stabilizing 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," Putin said.
Ukraine hails U.S. military aid
In his nightly televised address on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the United States for announcing $3.75 billion US in weapons and other aid for Ukraine and its neighbours on NATO's eastern flank, calling it "a very powerful package."
"For the first time, we will get Bradley armoured vehicles — this is exactly what is needed. New guns and rounds, including high-precision ones, new rockets, new drones. It is timely and strong," he said.
Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, but the Russian Orthodox Church's backing of Moscow's war in Ukraine has angered many Ukrainian Orthodox believers and splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church.
Of 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 100 million are in Russia itself, and some of those abroad are in unity with Moscow.
Others are strongly opposed, however, and reject Moscow's assertion that its Feb. 24 invasion last year was an essential pre-emptive strike to defend its own security and that of Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers, divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and two other Orthodox Churches — one of which is the autocephalous, or independent, Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In a revered 1,000-year-old cathedral complex 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.
Ukraine's government on Thursday took over administration of the Kyiv-Pechersk monastery's Dormition Cathedral from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had been loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, and allowed the Ukrainian church to use it for the Christmas service.
The monastery complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
"It's an amazing moment," said Alex Fesiak, among hundreds of worshippers who attended. "Previously this place — on Ukrainian territory, within Kyiv — has been linked to Moscow. Now we feel this is ours, this is Ukrainian. This is part of the Ukrainian nation."
With files from The Associated Press