Artillery exchanges pounded war-scarred cities in eastern Ukraine on Friday despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to stop attacking for 36 hours.
The brief ceasefire declared by Putin earlier this week was supposed to begin at 0900 GMT Friday and would have been the first full pause since Moscow’s invasion in February 2022.
But AFP journalists heard both outgoing and incoming shelling in the frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine after the time when the Russian ceasefire was supposed to have begun.
Moscow’s forces also struck Ukraine’s second-largest city Kramatorsk in the east, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration said.
“The occupiers hit the city with rockets twice,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on social media, adding that a residential building had been hit but there were no victims.
Putin’s order to stop fighting during the Orthodox Christmas came after Moscow suffered its worst reported loss of life in the war and as Ukraine’s allies pledged to send armoured vehicles and a second Patriot air defence battery to aid Kyiv.
– Ceasefire ‘not serious’ –
Tymoshenko earlier said that Moscow’s forces had struck the southern city of Kherson in an attack that left several people dead or wounded.
“They talk about a ceasefire. This is who we are at war with,” said Tymoshenko.
Russia’s defence ministry said however it was respecting its unilateral ceasefire and accused Ukraine’s forces of continued shelling.
Both countries celebrate Orthodox Christmas and the Russian leader’s order came following ceasefire calls from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill, a staunch Putin supporter.
Ukraine had already dismissed the halt — due to last until the end of Saturday (2100 GMT) — as a strategy by Russia to gain time to regroup its forces and bolster its defences following a series of battlefield reversals.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said the unilateral ceasefire “cannot and should not be taken seriously” while a close advisor said Russia “must leave the occupied territories” for there to be any real let up in hostilities.
US President Joe Biden was equally dismissive, saying Putin was just “trying to find some oxygen.”
Since the invasion began on February 24 last year, Russia has occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but Kyiv has reclaimed swathes of its territory and this week claimed a New Year’s strike that killed scores of Moscow’s troops.
The Kremlin said Thursday that during a telephone conversation with Erdogan, Putin had told the Turkish leader Moscow was ready for dialogue if Kyiv recognises “new territorial realities”.
He was referring to Russia’s claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions — despite not fully controlling them.
In Bakhmut, located in the Donetsk region, dozens of civilians gathered at a building used as a base for disbursing humanitarian aid, where volunteers organised a Christmas Eve celebration less than an hour after the ceasefire was to go into effect, handing out mandarins, apples and cookies.
The streets of the largely bombed-out city were mostly empty save for military vehicles. Shelling was lighter on Friday than it had been in recent days.
Pavlo Diachenko, a police officer in Bakhmut, said he doubted the ceasefire would mean much to the city’s civilians even if it had been respected.
“What can a church holiday mean for them? They are shelling every day and night and almost every day there are people killed,” he said.
Kirill, 76, made his ceasefire appeal “so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and on the day of the Nativity of Christ”, he said on the church’s official website Thursday.
But there was widespread scepticism in the streets of Kyiv to the gesture.
“You can never trust them, never…. Whatever they promise, they don’t deliver,” said Olena Fedorenko, a 46-year-old from the war-scarred city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
– More arms for Ukraine –
News of Putin’s ceasefire order came as Germany and the United States pledged to provide additional military aid for Kyiv, with Biden saying the promised equipment comes at a “critical point” in the war.
Washington and Berlin said in a joint statement that they will respectively provide Kyiv with Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
Putin’s ceasefire order came a day after Moscow lifted its reported toll in its worst single reported loss from a Ukrainian strike to 89 dead.
Ukraine’s military strategic communications unit has said nearly 400 Russian soldiers died in the town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, held by pro-Russian forces. Russian commentators have said the death toll may be far higher than the Kremlin’s figures.