- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his troops to observe a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine to mark the Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday this weekend — a rare break of hostilities in a war that has dragged on for more than 10 months.

In a statement posted on the Kremlin’s website, Mr. Putin instructed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to halt operations for 36 hours so citizens in Ukraine can observe the holiday.

“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,” Mr. Putin said in the order.

But the offer met with a frosty initial response from Ukraine, where a senior government official dismissed the gesture as “hypocrisy.”

Mr. Putin‘s announcement came just hours after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, publicly called for a cease-fire to mark the religious celebration. Mr. Putin also spoke by phone Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called on the Russian leader to order a “unilateral cease-fire” in Ukraine, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Putin‘s announcement could be interpreted as the first crack in the door toward a longer cease-fire and, perhaps, peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Both sides have expressed openness to peace talks in recent weeks, though the prospects for a deal remain dim and the two countries are miles apart in their demands.

In a Twitter post Thursday, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, seemed to reject the cease-fire. He accused Moscow of blatant “hypocrisy” by calling for a temporary truce in the midst of a lengthy campaign  targeting civilians and occupying Ukrainian land.
“Ukraine doesn’t attack foreign territory & doesn’t kill civilians. As [Russia] does,” Mr. Podolyak wrote. “Ukraine destroys only members of the occupation army on its territory. Second. [Russia] must leave the occupied territories — only then will it have a ‘temporary truce.’ Keep hypocrisy to yourself.”

For his part, Mr. Putin during his call with Mr. Erdogan “reaffirmed Russia‘s openness to a serious dialogue” with Ukraine. But as part of any deal, Russian officials have said they will insist Ukraine acknowledge Russia‘s “annexation” of four eastern Ukrainian provinces.

Ukraine has rejected those conditions. Virtually no government on earth has accepted Russia‘s annexation claims.

Kyiv also insists that Russian officials be held on war-crimes charges and make financial restitution for the damage they’ve caused in Ukraine.

Several previous rounds of peace talks early in the fighting produced no agreement or cease-fire.

Before the cease-fire was ordered, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was telling reporters Thursday he 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,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in Oslo, the Associated Press reported.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House or Pentagon to the Russian announcement.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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