President Vladimir Putin has slammed the West for trying to “tear up” Russia and said his offensive in Ukraine aims to “unite the Russian people”.
Meanwhile, residents in Kyiv, a day after the deadly shelling in southern Ukraine, held Christmas services on Sunday, defying Russian religious leaders who celebrate it on January 7.
Putin has used the concept of “historic Russia” to argue that Ukrainians and Russians are one people – undermining Kiev’s sovereignty and justifying his 10-month offensive in Ukraine.
He said Russia’s “geopolitical opponents[were]intent on tearing apart Russia, historical Russia,” Putin said in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast later Sunday.
“Divide and conquer, that’s what they have always tried and are still trying to achieve,” Putin added.
“But our goal is different: it is to unite the Russian people,” he said.
Putin said his government is “acting in the right direction… to protect our national interests, the interests of our citizens, our people.”
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He reiterated that Moscow is ready to negotiate and expressed no concern when asked about the new air defense system that the United States will supply to Ukraine.
“Of course we will 100 percent destroy it!” said Putin, referring to the Patriot missile battery promised to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
– Kherson “Terror” –
On his first trip outside of Ukraine since the offensive began, Zelensky received firm pledges of support from US President Joe Biden, including the Pentagon’s most advanced air defense system.
Western military and financial aid was vital in pushing back Russian troops through Ukraine — including from Kherson, the only Russian-held regional capital.
Despite Russia’s withdrawal from the city, Kherson remains within reach of Moscow’s guns and under constant threat.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian army counted 71 attacks on the partially recaptured region, including 41 on the capital, also called Kherson.
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These included a deadly shelling at a busy city center market that left 10 dead and 55 injured.
The Russian-appointed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, told Telegram the shelling was “a disgusting provocation” by Ukraine, which blamed Russia.
Zelenskyy has slammed Russian “terror” and urged his compatriots to persevere as they watched a devastating Christmas Eve.
– Defiant Christmas –
Church bells rang across Kyiv on Sunday as Orthodox Christians attended Christmas services in a lull with Russian religious leaders who will be observing the holiday in two weeks.
At a church service in central Kyiv, believer Olga Stanko told AFP she supports any move that would remove Ukraine from Russia.
“The war brought us so much suffering,” she said. “We can’t do that with Russia, stay under its influence.”
The decision by some Ukrainian churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25 shows that the rift between religious leaders in Kyiv and Moscow has widened.
A poll by Interfax-Ukraine showed support for moving the Christian holiday to December 25 rose from 26 percent in 2021 to 44 percent in 2022, although 31 percent were still opposed.
Ukraine has been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century, but part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with Moscow in 2019 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the east.
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In May, the Russian-backed branch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine also severed ties with Moscow.
From St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Pope Francis called for an end to the conflict.
“May the Lord… enlighten the minds of those who have the power to still the thunder of arms and bring an immediate end to this senseless war!” said the 86-year-old.