KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president praised the United States for including tank-killing armored vehicles in its latest multibillion-dollar package of military aid, saying they are “exactly what is needed” for Ukrainian troops locked in combat against Russian forces, even as both sides celebrated Orthodox Christmas on Saturday.
The White House announcement Friday of $3.75 billion in weapons and other aid for Ukraine and its European backers came as Moscow said its troops are observing a short Orthodox Christmas cease-fire.
Ukrainian officials denounced the unilateral 36-hour pause as a ploy and said it appeared to have been ignored by some of Moscow’s forces pressing ahead with the nearly 11-month invasion.
Russia’s Defense Ministry insisted Saturday that its forces along the 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) front line were observing the Kremlin-ordered truce, but returned fire when attacked.
The latest package of U.S. military assistance was the biggest to date for Ukraine. For the first time, it included 50 Bradley armored vehicles and 500 of the anti-tank missiles they can fire. Germany also announced it would supply around 40 Marder armored personnel carriers and France promised wheeled AMX-10 RC tank destroyers.
Together, this week’s pledges were powerful signals that Ukraine can count on continued long-term Western aid against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to dismember the country.
In his nightly televised address on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the U.S. aid package as “very powerful.”
“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.
He thanked U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. lawmakers and “all the Americans who appreciate freedom, and who know that freedom is worth protecting.“
Celebrated by both Ukrainians and Russians, the Orthodox Christmas holiday also underscored the enmity that Russia’s invasion is precipitating between them.
In a revered 1,000-year-old cathedral complex in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the Christmas service Saturday was delivered in the Ukrainian language — instead of Russian — for the first time in decades, highlighting how Ukraine is seeking to jettison Moscow’s remaining influences over religious, cultural and economic life in the country.
Ukraine’s government on Thursday took over administration of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from the Russian Orthodox Church and allowed the Ukrainian church to use it for the Christmas service.
“It’s an amazing moment,” said Alex Fesiak, among hundreds of worshippers who attended. “Previously this place — on Ukrainian territory, within Kyiv — has been linked to Moscow. Now we feel this is ours, this is Ukrainian. This is part of the Ukrainian nation.”
The Putin-ordered Christmas cease-fire that started Friday was first proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-aligned head, Patriarch Kirill. The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar and celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. Putin’s order said a cease-fire would allow worshippers in combat zones to attend Christmas services.
Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epifaniy speaks during a Christmas service Kyiv.NurPhoto via Getty Images
But Ukrainian officials didn’t commit to following it and dismissed the move as a Russian ploy to buy time for its struggling invasion forces to regroup. Ukrainian and Western officials portrayed the announcement as a Russian attempt to grab the moral high ground and possibly snatch battlefield initiative and momentum from Ukrainian forces amid their counteroffensive of recent months.
The pause was due to end Saturday night — at midnight Moscow time, which is 11 p.m. in Kyiv.
The Ministry of Defense in Britain, a leading supplier of military aid to Ukraine, said Saturday in its daily readout on the invasion that “fighting has continued at a routine level into the Orthodox Christmas period.”
People dressed in costumes sing carols as they take part in Orthodox Christmas celebrations in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.YURIY DYACHYSHYN via Getty Images
In the fiercely contested Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai reported continued Russian shelling and assaults. Posting Friday on Telegram, Haidai said that in the first three hours of the cease-fire, Russian forces shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed one settlement three times. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
Ukrainian authorities on Saturday also reported attacks elsewhere in the previous 24 hours although it wasn’t clear whether the fighting was before or after the cease-fire’s start.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces carried out a missile strike and 20 salvos with rockets, and targeted settlements in the east, northeast and south.
The head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Saturday reported two civilian deaths the previous day from Russian strikes in the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut and to its north, in Krasna Hora.
In the southern Kherson region, Gov. Yaroslav Yanushevych said Saturday that Russian forces shelled 39 times on Friday, hitting houses and apartment buildings, as well as a fire station. One person was killed and seven others were wounded.