Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for his forces in Ukraine to observe a unilateral temporary truce has been called into question following reports of continued fighting on both sides in the Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Kramatorsk.
According to reports, gunfire could be heard around Bakhmut after the ceasefire was supposed to have come into effect at 0900 GMT.
The Ukrainian president's office said Russian forces had also hit Kramatorsk with rockets. There's been no independent confirmation of the claim.
Air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv about 40 minutes after the Russian cease-fire was to come into effect, but no explosions were heard. A widely-used alert in a Ukraine app, which includes information from emergency services, showed sirens blaring all across the country.
But Ukrainian and Western officials suspected an ulterior motive in Putin’s apparent goodwill gesture.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy questioned the Kremlin’s intentions, accusing the Moscow of planning the fighting pause “to continue the war with renewed vigour.”
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover to stop the advance of our guys in the (eastern) Donbas (region) for a while and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised people closer to our positions,” Zelenskyy said late on Thursday.
He didn't, however, state outright that Kyiv would ignore Putin’s request.
US President Joe Biden echoed Zelenskyy's wariness, saying it was “interesting” that Putin was ready to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches on Christmas and New Year’s.
“I think (Putin) is trying to find some oxygen,” Biden said, without elaborating.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington had “little faith in the intentions behind this announcement,” adding that Kremlin officials ”have given us no reason to take anything that they offer at face value.”
The truce order seems to be a ploy “to rest, refit, regroup, and ultimately attack,” he said.
The Institute for the Study of War agreed that the truce could be a ruse allowing Russia to regroup.
“Such a pause would disproportionately benefit Russian troops and begin to deprive Ukraine of the initiative,” the think tank said late Thursday.
"Putin cannot reasonably expect Ukraine to meet the terms of this suddenly declared cease-fire, and may have called for the cease-fire to frame Ukraine as unaccommodating and unwilling to take the necessary steps toward negotiations.”
The ill feeling between the warring sides showed no signs of abating, despite the backdrop of Christmas.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said those who rejected Putin’s proposal for a Christmas truce were “clowns” and “pigs.”
“The hand of Christian mercy was extended to the Ukrainians,” he said in a Telegram post. “But pigs have no faith and no innate sense of gratitude.”
Some civilians on the streets of Kyiv said they spoke from bitter experiences that they doubted Russia’s motives.
“Everybody is preparing (for an attack), because everybody remembers what happened in the new year when there were around 40 Shahed (Iranian drones),” local resident Vasyl Kuzmenko said. “But everything is possible.”
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