Putin’s so-called Christmas ceasefire, explained

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with the head of Russia’s Karachay-Cherkessia Republic (not pictured) during their meeting in Moscow on January 5, 2023. | Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

This 36-hour unilateral ceasefire in Ukraine is really a propaganda move — and there are few indications that Russia followed through.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a 36-hour unilateral ceasefire in Ukraine, timed for the Orthodox Christmas, a move that at least one Ukrainian official derided as a “propaganda gesture” that will likely do little to foster real negotiations or otherwise change the trajectory of the war.

Ukraine never accepted the ceasefire, but hours into the so-called truce, it’s clear how meaningless it was. Russia has continued shelling, as both sides exchange fire on the front lines in the east and the south.

Putin had ordered the Russian military to obey a temporary ceasefire “along the entire line of contact between the parties in Ukraine,” according to a statement from the Kremlin. The halt in Russian fighting is supposed to last from noon on Friday, January 6, until midnight on Saturday, January 7, in observance of the Orthodox Christmas holiday. The Kremlin cited a speech from Patriarch Kirill, the firebrand head of the Russian Orthodox Church who has been a full-throated supporter of both Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, as the reason for the decision. “As a large number of Orthodox Christians reside in the area of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire to allow them to attend church services on Christmas Eve as well as on Christmas Day,” said the Kremlin’s statement.

A pause in the fighting after months of an increasingly bloody conflict would typically be a welcome development, but this announcement had largely been dismissed by Ukraine and some of its Western partners as an obvious political ploy. A top Ukrainian official, Mykhailo Podolyak, wrote on Twitter that the “Russian Federation must leave the occupied territories – only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep hypocrisy to yourself.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also cynical, accusing Russia of trying to use the ceasefire to regroup in eastern Donbas. “They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys in Donbas and bring equipment, ammunition, and mobilized troops closer to our positions,” Zelenskyy said.

Both Ukraine and Western officials had good reason to be skeptical of Putin’s announcement. Russia has a spotty record of committing to ceasefires to begin with, and this truce is more a propaganda move for a domestic audience than a genuine gesture of goodwill toward Ukraine.

This is a pretty fake Christmas ceasefire

Putin’s announcement tried to achieve a few things.

For one, it makes Putin, who continues to oversee this brutal invasion, seem like a good guy to the Russian public, giving brave Russian soldiers a break and extending an olive branch in the spirit of Christmas — one that Ukraine said it would reject.

Support for the war in Ukraine still appears pretty strong among the Russian public, so Putin doesn’t necessarily need a huge boost, but this ceasefire pitch still lets Putin solidify the spin that the Kremlin is not the aggressor here. It also feeds strongly into Putin’s baseless propaganda on why he prosecuted this invasion in the first place. “It’s more likely a domestic signal to ensure continued support from the Orthodox Church and in line with the broader (false) narrative that Russia is fighting this war out of a humanistic interest to protect people of their shared religion and race from persecution,” said Margarita Konaev, a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).

To help justify and make a moral case for the invasion, Putin has relied on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its leader Kirill, both of which have claimed ethnic Russians are being targeted in Ukraine. Ukraine has, in recent months, cracked down on the Russian Orthodox Church within the country, scrutinizing it for being an arm of the Kremlin’s influence operations. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has traditionally been subordinate to that in Moscow, but the relationship strained in the years leading up to Russia’s full-scale war, with an independent church forming. The war has since forced many Ukrainian Orthodox leaders to officially cut ties. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine allowed its worshippers to celebrate Christmas on December 25 rather than January 7 this year because of what is widely perceived to be the Russian Orthodox Church’s complicity in the Ukraine war. The timing of Putin’s ceasefire seems intended to bolster the relationship between the Kremlin and Kirill, but also appeal to Russia’s worshippers and call attention to another split between Moscow and Kyiv.

The ceasefire also helps to obscure from the Russian people what Russia is actually doing in Ukraine. Putin is framing the ceasefire as a way to keep Ukrainians safe so they can gather together, without fear of violence, as if Putin suddenly cares about civilians. Moscow has spent the past few months engaged in a ruthless bombing campaign targeting critical civilian, residential, and energy infrastructure, which has continued to leave millions of Ukrainians without power in some of the coldest months of the year. Russia launched one of its biggest strikes just days before the new year, and also unleashed a barrage on New Year’s Eve. “I think it’s to whitewash what Russia is doing and show the comparison — put in people’s heads domestically: ‘We’re going to have this ceasefire so people can attend church’ — as if Ukrainians are going to bomb a church, which doesn’t happen,” said Olga Lautman, a researcher and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Biden pointed out this discrepancy — bombings in late December, only to take a pause now — in a brief statement Thursday. He added, of Putin: “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen.”

And this is likely true, too: Russia might just need a break. Its military has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield, including a recent attack in the Donestk where Ukraine claimed to have killed scores of Russian fighters. (The exact toll is unclear, but even Russia has said the number dead is greater than 80 soldiers.) The battle in the eastern city of Bakhmut is increasingly bloody for both sides, but even Russia has admitted things are bleak. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin-allied oligarch and head of the Wagner Group — a mercenary force that Russia is relying on heavily in Bakhmut — said its fighters are facing heavy casualties for very small gains. Reports of low morale among Russian troops have persisted for months, and Lautman said Moscow may need “to reorganize and stabilize the front lines.” Zelenskyy, of course, has alleged the same. The timing just happens to work out.

One ceasefire won’t do much to change the course of the war

Putin will fulfill some domestic political goals with this proposed ceasefire, whether or not Russian forces follow through. And, so far, there was no indication they did: In Bakhmut, Russian artillery continued to fire on Ukrainian troops, according to the New York Times, and in other places along the front lines. Ukraine, again, never agreed to the ceasefire but has accused Russia of never letting up. Moscow has instead blamed Ukraine for firing on Russian troops, forcing them to defend themselves.

Moscow, of course, has a track record of violating ceasefires. Last year, for example, Ukrainian officials said Moscow continued its attacks on Mariupol despite its promise to allow for a humanitarian corridor for evacuations and aid. Just because Russia said it was going to stop fighting for Christmas never meant it would. Konaev also pointed out that violence can sometimes intensify ahead of ceasefires as sides try to secure better positioning.

What does seem clear is that Russia’s ceasefire announcement is divorced from any legitimate effort to seek a lasting ceasefire or conduct some sort of outreach for negotiations. Both Russia and Ukraine have rejected calls for talks of late, including an overture just this week from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has helped broker deals like the one to help ship Ukrainian grain through Black Sea ports.

In a call with Erdogan this week, Putin reportedly told the Turkish leader that yes, the Kremlin was open to real dialogue with Kyiv — that is, if Ukraine “takes into account the new territorial realities.” In other words, Ukraine accede its territory that Russia has captured or illegally annexed as a precondition for negotiations, something Moscow has demanded repeatedly. The Ukrainian government has always said this is untenable. Now, Kyiv’s steady battlefield gains and continued support from the West have made it even more committed to a full-on military victory that would push Russia out of its territory.

On the same day that Putin promised a “Christmas truce,” the United States and Germany agreed to send armored combat vehicles to Ukraine — something Kyiv has wanted for a while, in addition to high-tech tanks. (France has also committed to sending infantry-fighting vehicles this week.) Berlin is chipping in a Patriot missile defense system after Washington gifted Zelenskyy one during his visit to Washington last year — along with another couple of billion in security assistance, and ultimately another $45 billion in aid approved by Congress.

These are signals of digging in, rather than a breakthrough. Fighting in Ukraine has not slowed as anticipated in winter. Putin has admitted to the Russian public they should be prepared for a long battle in Ukraine. This ceasefire may serve the narrative Putin needs to wage that long battle, but it will do little to influence the trajectory of a war now inching close to the one-year mark.

Update, January 6, 3:20 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 5 and has been updated to include new details about the ceasefire.

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