Ukrainians and Russians have celebrated Orthodox Christmas as fighting persisted despite Russia’s unilateral call for a 36-hour cease-fire that Ukraine said was only a ploy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to reposition and reinforce his troops.
While the faithful celebrated the holiday, cities in eastern Ukraine saw no significant decrease in the fighting on January 6-7.
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Shelling in the city of Bakhmut by the Russian military killed two people — a 66-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman — Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General’s Office said.
Another 13 people were injured by mines that exploded and left them with shrapnel wounds. Apartment buildings and other facilities were also destroyed and damaged by the shelling, the Prosecutor-General’s Office said.
The deaths occurred on January 6 but details about the victims were first reported on January 7.
Military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy told Ukrainian television that Bakhmut and Soledar, another city in the region, remained under the control of Ukrainian forces, although shelling and clashes continued on January 7.
“Our armed forces and command are doing everything to inflict maximum damage on the enemy in terms of personnel and equipment…and to preserve their forces as much as possible,” Cherevatiy said.
He added that the tactics of the Russian military had not changed: They use personnel who continuously “roll” into the positions of Ukrainian defenders. Ukrainian soldiers “are on the defensive, but the tactical situation sometimes forces them to change their positions,” he said.
Cherevatiy said combat operations were also ongoing in the direction of Svatove-Kreminna. Russian forces regroup, try to counterattack in certain directions but suffer significant losses and retreat, he said.
None of the battlefield claims could be independently verified.
WATCH: In the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian gunners are hitting Russian troops with Soviet-era Akatsia artillery, coordinating their accuracy with multiple spotter drones, they say.
Cherevatiy also commented on Putin’s order to introduce a cease-fire in observance of the Orthodox Christmas holiday.
“Of course, none of this happened,” he said.
Presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak on January 7 called Moscow’s cease-fire “fake” and accused Russian troops of firing along the entire contact line.
Putin ordered the cease-fire to begin at noon on January 6 and last though midnight on January 7.
The Russian Defense Ministry insisted its forces were observing the cease-fire but also said that the army had repelled attacks by Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine and killed dozens of soldiers on January 6.
Putin stood alone at a service at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin to mark Orthodox Christmas. Images broadcast on Russian television showed him standing at the altar with a clergyman the only other person present.
In Kyiv, hundreds of worshipers attended a service at the 11th-century Pechersk Lavra as Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led a Christmas liturgy. He said Christmas incites people to fight against evil, sin, and darkness.
“These considerations especially echo in our hearts at the time of the most difficult trials of the war, which our Ukrainian people are going through,” he said.
Ukraine did not want the war, which he said resulted from “devilish malice and envy” on the part of “those who held us captive” for centuries. After Ukraine became independent and started building its own sovereign state, they “could not tolerate our achievements and success” and started a war.
“But they will definitely be defeated in it, because the truth is on our side,” he said.
Epifaniy said Ukraine had already achieved a moral victory because all people of goodwill “condemn the acts of genocide, terror and numerous war crimes committed by the evil Russian empire on our land.”
The monastery used to be the seat of a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) that was previously under Moscow’s jurisdiction. The UOC severed ties after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew congratulated Ukrainians and conveyed his blessings, the press service of the Ukrainian parliament said on Telegram.
“We pray for the end of this unjust war and aggression day and night, for the Ukrainian people, strong and brave, who dared to defend the integrity and freedom of Ukraine,” Bartholomew said. “We are with you through love and prayers. We are glad to see that the international community is also with you. Justice and truth always wins.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainians in a message on Orthodox Christmas that he was glad to see the hundreds of worshipers who turned out on January 7 for the holiday service in the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, including Ukrainian soldiers.
“It is very important that a sincere prayer for Ukraine was and will continue to be heard in the Lavra today,” Zelenskiy said in a video message late on January 7.
“Once again, I congratulate everyone who celebrates today, on this day, which has already become historic for Ukraine, for the spiritual independence of our people, with a Merry Christmas,” he said.
He also encouraged Ukrainians to “keep the mood that was felt today — a mood of joy at the strengthening of Ukraine and at the achievement of historical justice.”
Zelenskiy earlier praised the United States for including tank-killing armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles in its January 6 package of military aid, saying that they will strengthen Ukraine’s army on the battlefield.
“For the first time, we will get Bradley armored vehicles — this is exactly what is needed. New guns and rounds, including high-precision ones, new rockets, new drones. It is timely and strong,” he said later in his nightly televised address.
With reporting by AP and AFP