KYIV/KRAMATORSK, Ukraine - Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire at the front line in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its troops to stop shooting for a unilateral truce that was firmly rejected by Kyiv.
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.
Russia’s defence ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire from noon Moscow time (5pm Singapore time) “along the entire line of contact” in the conflict, but said Ukraine kept up shelling populated areas and military positions.
Reuters journalists at the front line in eastern Ukraine heard explosions which Ukrainian troops said were incoming Russian rocket fire.
The Ukrainians said it was a comparatively quiet day at that part of the front, but that this was not due to any ceasefire but to snowy weather, which made it impossible to fly drones and harder to spot targets for artillery.
It was not immediately possible to establish whether there was any reduction in the intensity of fighting at other locations.
One witness in the Russian-occupied regional capital Donetsk, close to the front, also described outgoing artillery fired from pro-Russian positions on the city’s outskirts after the truce was meant to take effect.
In the hours prior, rockets slammed into a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk close to the eastern front line, damaging 14 homes but with no casualties, the mayor said. Residents described several explosions.
“It’s bad, very bad,” said Oleksnadr, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack. “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.”
One rescue worker was killed and four others injured when 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.
Mr 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.
Christmas as cover
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected the ceasefire out of hand as a ploy for Russia to buy time after sustaining crippling losses at the front line.
“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,” Mr Zelensky said in his Thursday night video address.
Russia has sustained heavy losses in recent days, including scores of troops killed on New Year’s Eve in the deadliest incident of the war it has acknowledged for its own troops.
Shortly after the ceasefire was supposed to come into effect, Russian-backed officials accused Ukraine of shelling Donetsk with artillery, Russia’s state-run Tass news agency said.
Pro-Russian officials had indicated they would keep fighting if Ukraine does. Mr Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, said on Thursday that Mr Putin’s order only covered offensive operations and his forces would hit back if fired upon.
Mr Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed administrator of Ukraine’s Kherson region, described the ceasefire as “a gesture of goodwill” but said the situation on the front lines would not change because of it.
In Kyiv, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine inaugurated Orthodox Christmas celebrations with a church service at St Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv dedicated to Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
Mr Andriy Rekhnyuk, a 43-year-old Ukrainian soldier attending church, dismissed the ceasefire as “the usual bulls**t”.
“What ceasefire? Probably they need to get some respite,” he said of the Russians.
“Forget the ceasefire. But 2023 will be the year of our victory.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, starting a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of Ukrainians. With weapons and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has driven Russia back from some of its territory but battles are raging in the east and south.
In a major breakthrough for Kyiv, this week its Western allies finally announced shipments of large numbers of armoured fighting vehicles, which Kyiv has been requesting for months for mechanised battles against Russian tanks at the front.
Germany said it would deliver an advanced Patriot anti-aircraft missile system and around 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles within three months. Washington will send Bradley Fighting Vehicles as part of a new US$2.8 billion (S$3.7 billion) security package due to be formally unveiled on Friday. France also announced a package of armoured vehicles.
Ukraine’s military General Staff said its soldiers repelled repeated Russian attacks over the past day, with Moscow focused on trying to take towns in Donetsk.
“The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on attempts to establish control over the Donetsk region” without success, the General Staff said in a statement, adding that both Ukraine and Russia had launched multiple air strikes over the past day.
US President Joe Biden suggested Putin’s ceasefire offer was a sign of desperation: “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen,” he told reporters at the White House.
Russia’s Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan 7. The main Orthodox Church in Ukraine has rejected the authority of Moscow, and many Ukrainian believers have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on Dec 25, as in the West.
In his evening speech, Mr Zelensky switched to Russian rather than Ukrainian to address Russians. Ending the war meant “ending your country’s aggression... And the war will end either when your soldiers leave or we throw them out.” REUTERS