What does Russia’s ceasefire declaration mean for Ukraine?

Russia’s forces have brought a temporary halt to hostilities in Ukraine after Vladimir Putin called a ceasefire to mark Orthodox Christmas and allow his troops to attend church services.

“Taking into account the appeal of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, I instruct the minister of defence of the Russian Federation to introduce a ceasefire regime along the entire line of contact of the parties in Ukraine,” Mr Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.

“Proceeding from the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and allow them to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on Christmas Day.”

Putin’s interlude began at midday on Friday in Moscow (9am UK time) and is set to last for 36 hours on the request of the Russian Orthodox church, Russian state TV confirmed.

But his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, rejected the call for a temporary truce, accusing Russia of seeking to halt Kyiv’s progress in the bitter fight for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where the conflict has become a drawn-out war of attrition in recent months, with the brutal winter weather settling in to make conditions on the ground even tougher.

“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover to at least briefly stop the advance of our guys in Donbas and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised men closer to our positions. What will this bring? Just another increase in the death toll,” Mr Zelensky said in his latest nightly address to the nation.

“Everyone in the world knows how the Kremlin uses respites at war to continue the war with renewed vigour. But to end the war faster, that is not what is needed at all.

“What is needed is the citizens of Russia who will find the courage to free themselves of their shameful fear of one man in the Kremlin, at least for 36 hours, at least at Christmas time.”

His adviser, Mikhailo Podolyak, also reacted angrily to Mr Putin’s appeal, saying Russia must leave the territory it has occupied and “only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’”.

“Keep hypocrisy to yourself,” he continued, claiming that Moscow was only seeking to secure additional time to regroup and mobilise additional forces, calling the gesture: “A banal trick. There is not the slightest desire to end the war in this.”

US president Joe Biden appeared to agree with that assessment, saying he believed that Mr Putin was “trying to find some oxygen.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a ceasefire simply as “an agreement, usually between two armies, to stop fighting in order to allow discussions about peace”, although in the present instance there is no agreement on the matter from Ukraine and no prospect of meaningful peace talks taking place between the two sides.

Before the announcement of the order from Moscow, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he had detected no change in Moscow’s stance towards Ukraine, insisting that the Kremlin “wants a Europe where they can control a neighbouring country”.

“We have no indications that President Putin has changed his plans, his goals for Ukraine,” he said in Oslo.

Ukraine likewise remains unwavering in its refusal to concede a single square inch of ground to Russia, which began its invasion on 24 February last year apparently expecting a swift conquest but instead encountering a courageous resistance from its neighbours, well-armed by its Western allies, forcing a number of embarrassing retreats and a reliance on heavy bombing campaigns.

Also pessimistic about the legacy of the present ceasefire was UK foreign secretary James Cleverly, who said on Friday it would “do nothing to advance the prospects for peace” without more meaningful concessions from Moscow.

“Russia must permanently withdraw its forces, relinquish its illegal control of Ukrainian territory and end its barbaric attacks against innocent civilians,” he said.

Mr Cleverly was speaking at a press conference in London alongside German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, where the pair suggested that heavy tanks “may well be part” of future support for Ukraine, but stopped short of joining the US in formally committing to sending them.