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Putin’s so-called Christmas ceasefire, explained

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

Putin has ordered the Russian military to obey a temporary ceasefire “along the entire line of contact between the parties in Ukraine”, according to a Kremlin statement. The halt to Russian fighting should last from noon on Friday 6 January until midnight on Saturday 7 January, in observance of the Orthodox Christmas holidays. The Kremlin quoted a speech by Patriarch Kirillthe ember at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who has been a staunch supporter of both Putin and the invasion of Ukraineas a reason for the decision. “Since a large number of Orthodox Christians reside in the area of ​​hostilities, we request the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire to allow them to participate in church services on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day,” said the Kremlin statement.

A break in fighting after months of an increasingly bloody conflict that would generally be a positive development, but this announcement was largely rejected by Ukraine and some of its western partners as an obvious political ploy. A senior Ukrainian official, Mykhailo Podolyak, he wrote on Twitter that the “Russian Federation must leave the occupied territories – only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep the hypocrisy to yourself.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also been cynical, accusing Russia of trying to use the ceasefire to regroup in eastern Donbas. “Now they want to use Christmas as a cover, even if for a short time, to stop the advance of our boys in the Donbass and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilized troops closer to our positions”. Zelensky said.

Both Ukrainian and Western officials have good reason to be skeptical of Putin’s announcement. Beyond Russia’s erratic record of pledging a ceasefire, this truce is more a propaganda move for a domestic audience than a genuine gesture of goodwill toward Ukraine.

This is a fake Christmas ceasefire

Putin’s announcement is trying to achieve a few things.

First, he tries to make Putin, who continues to oversee this brutal invasion, look like a good guy to the Russian public, by giving the brave Russian soldiers pause and extending an olive branch in the spirit of Christmas – one that Ukraine has reported will refuse.

Support for the war in Ukraine still appears quite strong among Russian audiences, so Putin doesn’t necessarily need a huge boost, but this ceasefire still allows Putin to consolidate the argument that the Kremlin is not the aggressor here. It also feeds heavily on Putin unfounded propaganda as to why he pursued this invasion in the first place. “More likely to be an internal signal to ensure continued support from the Orthodox Church and in line with the larger (false) narrative that Russia is fighting this war out of a humanistic interest to protect the people of their shared religion and race from persecution,” said Margarita Konaev, a researcher at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) in Georgetown.

To help justify and morally shore up the invasion, Putin relied on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader Kirill, both of whom have claimed that ethnic Russians are being targeted in Ukraine. Ukraine has, in recent months, repressed the Russian Orthodox Church within the country, examining it to be an arm of the Kremlin’s influence operations. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has traditionally been subordinated to that of Moscow, but the relationship has strained in the years leading up to Russia’s full-scale war, with a formation of independent churches. The war has since then forced many Ukrainian Orthodox leaders to officially cut ties. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine has allowed this faithful to celebrate Christmas on December 25th rather than January 7 this year due to what is widely perceived as the complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church in the war in Ukraine. The timing of Putin’s ceasefire looks set to strengthen the relationship between the Kremlin and Kirill, but also to appeal to Russia’s faithful and draw attention to yet another division between Moscow and Kiev.

The ceasefire also helps hide 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 come together, without fear of violence, as if Putin suddenly cares about civilians. Moscow has spent the past few months engaged in a cutthroat bombing campaign against critical civilian, residential and energy infrastructurewho continued to do so leaving millions of Ukrainians without electricity during 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 blockade on New Year’s Eve. “I think it is to mask what Russia is doing and show the comparison – to put into people’s heads nationwide: ‘We will have this ceasefire so that people can attend church’ – as if the Ukrainians are going to bomb a church, which doesn’t happen,” said Olga Lautman, a researcher and researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Biden pointed this out discrepancy: attacks at the end of December, just to pause now — in a quick statement on Thursday. He added, of Putin: “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen.”

And that’s probably true, too: Russia might just need a break. Its military has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield, including a recent attack in Donestk where Ukraine has said it killed dozens of Russian fighters. (The exact price is unclear, but also Russia has said the number of dead is more than 80 soldiers.) The battle in the eastern city of Bakhmut is increasingly bloody for both sidesbut even Russia admitted it things are bleak. Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch allied with Putin and head of the Wagner Group — a mercenary force Russia relies heavily on in Bakhmut — said its fighters were facing heavy losses for very small gains. Reports of low morale among the Russian troops they have persisted for months and Lautman said Moscow may need to “reorganize and stabilize the front lines”. Zelensky, of course, he stated the same. The timing seems to work.

A ceasefire won’t change the course of the war much

Putin will accomplish some domestic political goals with this proposed ceasefire whether Russian forces follow through with it or not.

Moscow has a bit of a trail ceasefire violation record. Last year, for example, Ukrainian officials said Moscow continued its attacks on Mariupol despite its promise to allow a humanitarian corridor for evacuations and aid. Just because Russia says it will stop fighting for Christmas doesn’t mean it will. Konaev also stressed that violence can sometimes escalate ahead of a ceasefire as sides try to secure better positioning.

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

In a phone call with Erdogan this week, Putin reportedly told the Turkish leader that yes, the Kremlin was open to real dialogue with Kiev, i.e. if Ukraine “takes into account the new territorial realities”. In other words, Ukraine gains access to its territory that Russia has illegally captured or annexed as a precondition for negotiations, something Moscow has repeatedly demanded. The Ukrainian government has always said it is unsustainable. Now, the constant battlefield of Kiev gains and continued support from the West they made him even more committed to an all-out 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 fighting vehicles to Ukraine – something Kiev has wanted for a while, as well as high-tech tanks. (France also pledged to send infantry fighting vehicles this week.) Berlin is affecting a Patriot missile defense system after Washington gave one to Zelenskyy during his visit to Washington last year – together with another a couple of billion in security assistanceand finally another $45 billion in aid approved by Congress.

These are signs to dig in, rather than a breakthrough. Fighting in Ukraine has not slowed down as expected in winter. Putin has admitted to the Russian public that they should get ready 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 affect the trajectory of a war now nearing the one-year mark.

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