Russia President Vladimir Putin orders temporary stop of Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on September 27, 2021. [File, AP]

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his armed forces to observe a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine this weekend for the Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday, the first such sweeping truce move in the nearly 11-month-old war.

Putin did not appear to make his cease-fire order conditional on a Ukrainian agreement to follow suit, and it wasn't clear whether hostilities would actually halt on the 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) 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.

At various points during the war that started on Feb. 24, Putin has ordered limited and local truces to allow evacuations of civilians or other humanitarian purposes. Thursday's order was the first time Putin directed his troops to observe a cease-fire 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 cease-fire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ," according to Putin's order, addressed to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and published on the Kremlin's website.

While not necessarily the final official word back from Kyiv, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that Russian forces "must leave the occupied territories -- only then will it have a 'temporary truce.' Keep hypocrisy to yourself."

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 (0900 GMT Friday to 2100 GMT Saturday; 4 a.m. EST Friday to 3 p.m. EST Saturday). The Russian 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 cease-fire order is a logical step 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.

"Shall we believe Russians?" wondered Svitlana Zhereva after Kirill's proposal. "On the one hand they have given their blessing to the war and to kill, and on the other hand they want to present themselves as saints who are against blood-spilling. But they should be judged by their actions."

In addition to a possibile cease-fire, diplomatic efforts also were aimed at stopping the war, at least temporarily. Putin spoke by phone with Turkey's president on Thursday and the Kremlin said the Russian president "reaffirmed Russia's openness to a serious dialogue" with Ukrainian authorities.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Putin to implement a "unilateral cease-fire," according to a statement from the Turkish president's office.

Erdogan also told Zelenskyy later by telephone that Turkey was ready to mediate a "lasting peace." Erdogan has made such offers frequently, helped broker a deal allowing Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain, and has facilitated a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap.

Russia's professed readiness for peace talks came with the usual preconditions: that "Kyiv authorities fulfill the well known and repeatedly stated demands and recognize new territorial realities," the Kremlin said, referring to Moscow's insistence that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia and acknowledge other illegal territorial gains.

Previous attempts at peace talks have failed at that hurdle, because Ukraine demands that Russia withdraw from occupied areas.

Elsewhere, the head of NATO detected no change in Moscow's stance on Ukraine, insisting that the Kremlin "wants a Europe where they can control a neighboring country."

"We have no indications that President Putin has changed his plans, his goals for Ukraine," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Oslo, Norway.

Individual NATO countries are stepping up their military support of Ukraine.

In the latest pledge, the French Defense Ministry said it plans talks soon with its Ukrainian counterpart on delivering armored combat vehicles. France's presidency says it would be the first time this type of Western-made wheeled tank destroyer would be sent to Ukraine's military.

In the United States, President Joe Biden said Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a medium armored combat vehicle that can serve as a troop carrier, could be sent to Ukraine.

While more weapons arrive, the battlefield situation appears to have settled into a stalemate, increasingly a war of attrition. As winter sets in, troop and equipment mobility is more limited.

In the latest fighting, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, said Thursday at least five civilians were killed and eight wounded across the country by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours.

An intense battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut has left 60% of it in ruins, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said Thursday. Ukrainian defenders appear to be holding the Russians back. Taking the city in the Donbas region, an expansive industrial area bordering Russia, would not only give Putin a major battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but would rupture Ukraine's supply lines and open the way for Moscow's forces to press on toward key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.