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Russia's Putin ordered a temporary cease-fire in Ukraine during Orthodox Christmas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After more than 10 months of twists and turns in the war in Ukraine, we got another one today. Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his country's defense minister to order a temporary cease-fire in Ukraine over Orthodox Christmas. According to the Kremlin, the cease-fire will kick in for 36 hours starting at noon on January 6 - so tomorrow. Orthodox Christmas is traditionally celebrated by many believers on January 6 and 7. NPR's Charles Maynes is following along from Moscow. And, Charles, what's the story? How did this come about?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. Hi, Mary Louise. So this morning we had Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, calling for a truce out of respect for the Orthodox Christmas holiday. A statement released a few hours later by the Kremlin made clear President Putin had heard and was responding directly to Kirill's plea. Putin ordered, as you noted, his defense minister to implement this 36-hour cease-fire so people, Putin said, could attend Christmas services on the 6 and the 7. And Putin called on Ukraine's government to do the same.

KELLY: And what's the reaction been from Ukraine?

MAYNES: Well, they haven't been enthusiastic at all. The problem here really begins with Patriarch Kirill. You know, Kirill has been an open supporter of President Putin's military campaign to subjugate Ukraine to the point where the patriarch has told troops deployed that if they die in battle, their sins will be washed away. He has never, for example, expressed remorse over the deaths of Ukrainian civilians and has really embraced Putin's language that increasingly frames this conflict as a fight to defend traditional Russian values against the hedonistic West. And all those positions have really torn apart the Orthodox Christian world - obviously, most of all, in Ukraine. The wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with Moscow for centuries split from the Russian church over Kirill's statements last spring.

And Ukrainian officials, including presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, have really pointed to what they call Kirill's hypocrisy with this truce offer. In a post to social media, Podolyak called Kirill a war propagandist and said his offer for a Christmas truce was a cynical trap used for propaganda purposes. Podolyak also said Russia would use any pause in fighting to rearm and later fire more missiles at Ukraine, as Russia's obviously been doing repeatedly in recent weeks.

KELLY: I guess my next question should be what about reaction from Ukraine's allies, Western backers? Have we heard from them?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, President Biden and members of his administration have echoed that same skepticism. Here's Biden in comments to the press earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm reluctant to respond to anything Putin says. I found it interesting. He was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches and with the - on the 25th and New Year's. And, I mean, I think he's trying to find some oxygen.

MAYNES: You know, of course, Biden is referring to these massive airstrikes carried out by Russia on Ukrainian cities on December 25, when many Orthodox Christians also celebrate Christmas, as well as deadly strikes in Ukraine over the new year. As to Putin's needing oxygen, again, in Biden's words, you know, that may well refer to Russia needing a pause after its own recent setbacks now, including this Ukrainian rocket attack on a makeshift Russian military barrack in the town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine on New Year's Day. You know, the damage there was significant, so much so that Russia's Defense Ministry made the rare acknowledgment that 89 of its soldiers had died, even as Ukraine argues those numbers could be much higher. Meanwhile, the U.S. had perhaps another indirect response to the Russian cease-fire offer. The White House announced it was providing Ukraine with Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. Worth pointing out, however, that Ukraine has been publicly lobbying for Western-made tanks. They didn't get that.

KELLY: Charles, back to the cease-fire. I do get the skepticism in response to any promise that Vladimir Putin makes. However, it does seem like it's something to offer a pause in what has been horrendous fighting. Is there any reason to give Putin the benefit of the doubt and at least test whether this might be a chance to build on a goodwill gesture?

MAYNES: You know, I guess never say never, but it doesn't look like it, and I'll tell you why. You know, earlier today, Putin also spoke with the leader of Turkey, President Erdogan, in a phone call in which Erdogan pushed Putin to declare a unilateral cease-fire. It really is a trust-building measure towards eventual negotiations. But Putin's response, or the one shared anyway by the Kremlin readout of the call, made pretty clear he's had little change of heart. You know, Putin again demanded that Ukraine recognize Russia's new territories, by which he means these illegally annexed lands that Russia now claims but doesn't actually control before any, quote, "serious dialogue" with Kyiv could begin. Needless, Ukraine also has a position that hasn't changed much. Kyiv says peace begins the day Russian forces are out of Ukraine. So this Christmas cease-fire, even if it somehow happens, looks like a very brief respite in the fighting at best.

KELLY: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.