Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Moscow’s armed forces to observe a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine, in observance of the Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday.
Unexpectedly, Putin said that the Kremlin’s troops would cease combat anywhere along the 684-mile front line. The Russian-declared cease-fire in the nearly 11-month war is scheduled to start at 12pm on Friday (6 January), and last until Sunday (8 January) at midnight.
The effect of Putin’s order is in question after Kyiv officials criticised the action as a ruse - Kyiv has indicated it would not follow suit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky characterised the move as a stalling tactic designed to allow Russia to gather its invasion forces and plan more assaults.
But what exactly is Orthodox Christmas, when is it celebrated, and how is it different to Christmas in the West? Here is everything you need to know.
What is Orthodox Christmas?
Putin’s order comes after the Russian Orthodox Church head, Patriarch Kirill, proposed a ceasefire for this weekend’s Orthodox Christmas holiday.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which uses the ancient Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas on 7 January – later than the Gregorian calendar – although some Christians in Ukraine also mark the holiday on that date.
Eastern and southern Europe, particularly Russia and Ukraine, are home to the majority of Orthodox Christians, though Ethiopia and the Middle East both have sizable Orthodox Christian communities.
The holiday’s traditions are broadly similar to those celebrated in Western Christmas, though there are some differences.
The Russian Orthodox Church regards Christmas as one of the 12 Great Feasts, and one of only four that are preceded by a period of fasting.
Will the ceasefire stick?
The proposal has been slammed by Ukraine, with presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak dismissing the call as “a cynical trap and an element of propaganda”.
He also called the proposal a show of “hypocrisy”, given that President Volodymyr Zelensky had proposed a Russian troop withdrawal earlier, before 25 December, but Russia rejected it.
In his nightly video address, Zelensky stopped short of stating his forces would reject Mr Putin’s request to suspend fighting, instead questioning the Russian leadership’s motives.
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover to stop the advance of our guys in the Donbas for a while and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilised people closer to our positions,” Zelensky said.
Kyiv has indicated it will not follow suit on the ceasefire, but has not stated outright that it will ignore Putin’s request. Moscow also did not say whether it will hit back if Ukraine keeps fighting.
US President Joe Biden echoed Zelensky’s wariness, saying it is “interesting” Putin was ready to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches over the western Christmas period. “I think (Putin) is trying to find some oxygen,” Biden said without elaborating.