Ukraine war: Washington 'to send 50 Bradleys' and five other top developmentsComments
1. Fighting reportedly continued despite Russia's Christmas ceasefire
Artillery fire could be heard from the front line in Ukraine on Friday, even after the official start of a unilateral ceasefire declared by Moscow and rejected by Kyiv.
Additionally, air raid sirens were sounded across the entire country around 1:30 pm local time on Friday.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to observe Orthodox Christmas.
Kyiv has said it has no intention to stop fighting, rejecting the purported truce as a stunt by Moscow to buy time to reinforce troops that have taken heavy losses this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected the ceasefire out of hand as a ploy for Russia to buy time.
"They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys ... and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised troops closer to our positions," Zelenskyy said in his Thursday night video address.
Russia's defence ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire from noon Moscow time (0900 GMT) "along the entire line of contact" in the conflict but said Ukraine kept up its shelling.
One witness in the Russian-occupied regional capital Donetsk, close to the front, told Reuters that there was outgoing artillery fired from pro-Russian positions on the city's outskirts after the truce was meant to take effect.
Neither claim could be independently confirmed.
One rescue worker was killed and four others injured after Russian forces shelled a fire department in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson before the deadline early on Friday, the regional governor said. Reuters could not immediately verify this.
In the hours prior to the deadline, rockets slammed into a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk close to the eastern frontline, damaging 14 homes but with no casualties, the mayor said. Residents described several explosions.
"It's bad, very bad. We need to pressure them, get them to leave, maybe more air defence systems would help. This happens often, not only on festive occasions. Every other day," said Oleksandr, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack.
Putin ordered the 36-hour ceasefire in the 10-month-long war in a surprise move on Thursday, saying it would run through to the end of Russian Orthodox Christmas on Saturday.
2. Ukraine's energy company asks citizens to conserve power as temperatures plummet
Ukraine's power grid operator issued a new appeal to civilians to save electricity on Friday as temperatures fell and energy consumption rose, threatening new strains on a network devastated by Russian air strikes.
Russian missile and drone attacks on energy infrastructure since October have caused widespread damage that has led to winter blackouts and shortages of heating and water.
After hovering at around 10 degrees Celsius during an unseasonably warm spell since New Year, temperatures are now falling. Forecasters say they could soon plunge to -11°C in Kyiv and to -18°C in eastern Ukraine.
"In the near future, a significant drop in temperature is expected, which will lead to a rapid increase in consumption," state-run energy company and grid operator Ukrenergo said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app.
"The energy system is currently unable to fully cover it due to the damage and the enemy's occupation of a number of power plants that produce electricity, in particular, and the most powerful -- the Zaporizhzhia (nuclear power plant)."
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a government meeting on Friday that Ukraine should expect Russian attacks and emergency outages.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine last February, says it regards energy facilities as legitimate military targets. Ukraine and its allies say attacks on civilian infrastructure amount to war crimes.
Cities across Ukraine, including Kyiv, are undergoing scheduled blackouts to reduce the strain on the electrical grid during peak usage hours.
Ukrenergo said it was working with electricity producers and distributors to restore damaged facilities but that the repairs took up a lot of resources and time because of the complexity and scale of the damage.
Ukraine's Soviet-era power system cannot be fixed easily as energy operators need vast quantities of equipment.
Businesses and residents have bought tens of thousands of generators to ensure electricity supplies. Yaroslav Zheleznyak, a parliamentary deputy, said on Telegram that 669,400 generators were imported into Ukraine in 2022, with deliveries peaking at 309,400 units in December.
3. Lukashenka visits Russian units stationed in Belarus
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka visited a military base where Russian troops are stationed, the defence ministry said on Friday.
During the meeting, Lukashenka and an unnamed representative from the Russian army discussed the two countries' joint military drills, it claimed.
"At this stage, units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are ready to carry out tasks as intended," the representative stated.
Belarus, which is closely allied with Moscow, said on Thursday that it would receive more weapons and equipment from Russia as the two boost their military cooperation, fuelling fears it could be used as a staging post to attack Ukraine from the north.
Minsk has said it will not enter the war in Ukraine, but Russia used Belarus as a launchpad for its 24 February full-scale invasion and continues to use Belarusian airspace for drone and missile strikes, Kyiv says.
On Friday afternoon, a Russian MiG-31K interceptor jet known to operate nuclear-capable Kinzhal missiles was said to have taken off from Belarus and entered Ukrainian airspace after the unilateral truce deadline.
This claim could not be independently confirmed.
4. Washington to send around 50 Bradley fighting vehicles, officials say
A new US weapons package for Ukraine will include about 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, two US officials said on Thursday, with one of them saying the package will be worth roughly $2.8 billion (€2.64bn).
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that sending the Bradleys, a US Army mainstay, to Ukraine was being considered to help fight Russia's invasion. Russia's ambassador accused the United States of plotting a "dangerous course".
The latest security package for Ukraine is expected to be unveiled on Friday, the officials said.
The balance of the funds came from Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) for Ukraine, which allows the US to transfer defence articles like Humvees, trucks and munitions from stocks quickly without congressional approval in response to an emergency.
The armoured vehicle with a powerful gun, which is manufactured by BAE Systems, has been used as a staple by the US Army to carry troops around battlefields since the mid-1980s.
The Army has thousands of Bradleys, which could give the Ukrainians more firepower on the battlefield. Biden's move, however, is short of sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine, which the Ukrainians have been requesting.
Late last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the US Congress that the tens of billions of dollars of aid it had approved to help Ukraine combat the Russian invasion was not charity but an investment in global security.
The United States has sent about $21.3bn (€20bn) in security assistance to Kyiv.
The size of Friday's security aid package was not immediately clear. The White House declined to comment.
Russia's ambassador in Washington said the Bradleys "decision" showed Moscow's US interlocutors "have not even tried to listen to our numerous calls to take into account possible consequences of such a dangerous course."
Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, in comments published in Russian and English on the Facebook page of the Russian embassy, said there could be no more talk of weapons transfers being of a defensive nature.
The administration's actions, he said in remarks framed as responses to media questions, "indicate a lack of any desire for a political settlement."
The United States has increasingly sent more capable weapons to Ukraine. As the war progressed and Ukraine's needs changed, more complex weapons systems, including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), were shipped to Kyiv.
Most recently, Washington pledged to send a Patriot missile system to repel Russian missile and drone attacks. Training and other logistics still need to be worked out.
The Army is planning to retire its Bradley fleet and is working with industry to build a replacement as it seeks to modernise.
5. White House: 'Putin's Chef' wants Bakhmut's salt and gypsum
The United States is of the view that Russian President Vladimir Putin's ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the founder of Russia's most powerful mercenary group, is interested in taking control of salt and gypsum from mines near the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, a White House official said on Thursday.
There are indications that monetary motives are driving Russia's and Prigozhin's "obsession" with Bakhmut, the official added. Prigozhin is the owner of the private Russian military company Wagner Group.
Washington has previously accused Russian mercenaries of exploiting natural resources in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and elsewhere to help fund Moscow's war in Ukraine, a charge Russia rejected as "anti-Russian rage".
Earlier in 2022, international organisations and analysts said that Wagner's activities in these countries -- including participation in violent acts -- might have amounted to war crimes.
Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by Western countries for his role in Wagner, bade farewell on Thursday to former convicts who had served out their contracts in Ukraine and urged them to avoid the temptation to kill when back in civilian life.
Out of its force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, Wagner has sustained over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut, the US official said on Thursday.
The White House said late last month that the Wagner Group took delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, a sign of the group's expanding role in that conflict.
6. McDonald's leaves Kazakhstan as collateral to the Russian aggression
Workers removed the branding from McDonald's outlets in Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty, on Friday after the fast food giant's local business appeared to fall victim to collateral damage from Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
The western fast-food chain was forced to shut down after it struggled to source its beef from Russia.
The brand's exit from the Central Asian nation of 20 million divided opinions on social media and among onlookers near one of the Almaty restaurants where workers were taking down the large white letters from the top of the building.
"It was one of the nicest places where I used to spend time with my friends," said local resident Karina, who only gave her first name.
"I doubt any other company will be able to compete with McDonald's in Kazakhstan at the moment as no other fast food chain can replicate the menu that McDonald's had for the same price."
Others described the brand's departure as a minor inconvenience or said they would check out other fast-food joints.
Chains such as KFC, Burger King, and Hardee's have restaurants in Kazakhstan. Popeyes said last month it would open dozens of restaurants in the former Soviet republic in partnership with a local firm, Centras Group.
Many Kazakhs, proud of their meat-focused cuisine, expressed incredulity that McDonald's Kazakh licensee, Food Solutions KZ, could not source its beef patties locally and imported them from Russia until the war forced it to stop and ultimately shut down.
Industry insiders, however, say certificates and audits required by the US brand were expensive and lengthy, and local meat producers did not want to bother with them.
Mcdonald's and Food Solutions did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
The Kazakh company said on Thursday it would soon reopen its restaurants under a new brand due to "supply issues".
Many Kazakh businesses have faced supply problems in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions against Moscow that followed. Neighbouring Russia is Kazakhstan's main trading partner.