Despite Putin’s ceasefire, Shell flies to the Ukrainian front

Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery barrages on the frontline in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its troops to cease firing over a unilateral threat that Kyiv firmly denied.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the 36-hour ceasefire on Friday noon to celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Ukraine has said it has no intention of stopping fighting, dismissing the alleged threat as a stunt by Moscow to buy time to reinforce troops that have suffered heavy casualties this week.

“What truce? Can you hear?” said a Ukrainian soldier using the alias Vyshnya as an explosion was heard in the distance on the front line near Kreminna in eastern Ukraine. “What do you want to achieve if you keep shooting? We know we have learned not to trust them.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire “along the entire line of contact” as of midday Moscow time (0900 GMT), but said Ukraine continued shelling populated areas and military positions.

Reuters heard blasts from Ukrainian troops at the front line, which it described as Russian rocket fire. Ukrainians fired back from tanks.

Ukrainian troops said it was quieter than many other days because the snowy weather made it difficult to fly drones and spot targets. But they saw no sign of a Russian armistice.

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

Whether there was a reduction in combat intensity elsewhere could not be determined immediately.

A witness in the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk near the front lines also described outgoing artillery being fired from pro-Russian positions on the outskirts of the city after the ceasefire was due to take effect.

Ukrainian governor of the eastern front province of Lugansk, Serhiy Haidai, said that in the first three hours of the alleged ceasefire, the Russians shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed a settlement three times.

“Orthodox killers wish you a Merry Christmas,” he wrote on the messaging app Telegram.

WE OFFER BRADLEYS

Washington unveiled its latest $3.75 billion package of military aid to Ukraine and its war-hit allies, and sent the US Army’s workhorse Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Kyiv for the first time. The package includes weapons worth $2.85 billion for Ukraine and hundreds of millions to replenish the arsenals of allies who are sending their own weapons.

That ends a week in which both Germany and France have pledged armored vehicles, finally meeting one of Kiev’s most pressing demands from its allies: armor to defeat Russian tanks in mechanized battles.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who made the case for the Bradleys on his first foreign trip since the war began in Washington last month, said Friday they were “exactly what’s needed.”

The US package also includes Sea Sparrow air defense missiles, while Germany’s includes Patriot missiles offered by Washington last month.

Just before the ceasefire was due to begin, rockets slammed into a residential building in Kramatorsk near the eastern front line, damaging 14 houses, although so many people fled without casualties.

“It’s bad, very bad,” said Oleksnadr, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack. “We have to put pressure on them, get them to leave, maybe more air defense systems would help. This happens often, not just on festive occasions. Every other day.”

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

CHRISTMAS AS A COVER

Zelenskyy flatly rejected the Russian ceasefire as a ploy for Russia to buy time after suffering crippling losses at the front.

“They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to halt our boys’ advance… and move equipment, ammunition and mobilized troops closer to our positions,” Zelenskyy said in his video address Thursday night.

Russia has suffered heavy casualties in recent days, including dozens of soldiers killed on New Year’s Eve in the deadliest incident of the war it has acknowledged for its own troops.

Despite the threat, pro-Russian officials had indicated they would continue fighting if Ukraine did. Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, said Thursday that Putin’s order covered only offensive operations and his forces would retaliate if fired on.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 2nd. A war began on February 24 that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of Ukrainians. Armed with arms and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has pushed Russia out of part of its territory, but fighting rages on in the east and south.

Ukraine’s military general staff said its soldiers had repelled repeated Russian attacks over the past day, with Moscow focusing on taking towns in Donetsk.

“The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on attempts to gain control of the Donetsk region,” to no avail, the General Staff said in a statement, adding that both Ukraine and Russia launched multiple airstrikes over the past day.

Russia’s Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th. The main Orthodox Church in Ukraine has rejected Moscow’s authority, and many Ukrainian believers have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on December 25, as in the West.

© Thomson Reuters 2023.

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