Is A Christmas Truce In Ukraine Possible?
Few see reason right now for holiday optimism, though Christmas ceasefires have happened multiple times since the conflict in Donbas started in 2014. A new call by religious leaders has raised hope for at least a pause in the fighting.
Last year at this time, there was good news coming out of Donbas: the simmering seven-year conflict in eastern Ukraine would see a much needed holiday season ceasefire. Negotiators from the Trilateral Contact Group, along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had helped seal a Christmas truce. There was even hope that the pause in fighting could lead to a wider de-escalation between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian troops, and even a lasting peace.
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Of course, we know what happened next. Not only did the ceasefire not last long (like others before it in Donbas), but two months later Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Now, over the past 72 hours, a widening effort is underway for a new Christmas truce in Ukraine.
Speaking to heads of G7 countries, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Moscow to pull out its troops on the eve of the holidays. “It would be right this Christmas to start the withdrawal of Russian troops … (a) meaningful step towards the diplomatic settlement that Moscow so regularly mentions.” He added that the withdrawal of troops “would ensure a lasting cessation to hostilities.”
Ceasefire, holiday opportunity
Naturally, a Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory is very different than a truce. When asked if Moscow would consider a proposal to cease hostilities over the Christmas or New Year period, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said “There is no such topic on the agenda.”
Holiday optimism is in short supply.
Still, a holiday truce is by no means off the table. While it has been months since any negotiations have taken place on halting the hostilities, there are regular channels of communication between the warring sides and intermediaries that have allowed for negotiations over prisoner exchanges and the Black Sea grain embargo.
The holidays provide a unique opportunity for at least a temporary halt to fighting, with at least three Christmas ceasefires since the start of the conflict in Donbas in 2014. A holiday ceasefire this year between Russia and Ukraine got an extra push this week from nearly 1,000 religious leaders in the U.S.. In their call for peace and negotiations, the leaders invoked the legacy of the 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I where British and German troops defied their commanding officers and ceased hostilities along the Western Front over Christmas.
Holiday optimism closer to the conflict, however, is currently in short supply. “There may be some miracles at Christmas, but, unfortunately, this does not apply to Russia," said Ukrainian Secretary of National Security, Oleksiy Danilov, commenting on the prospects for a truce. "We understand that they will not go anywhere.”
Peskov’s response too was to brush of Zelensky’s call for a Russian withdrawal, saying that there would be no peace with Kyiv until he accepted the “realities” on the ground, by which he meant that the Zelensky would need to recognize the Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia in September as truly Russian.
The hard-hitting rhetoric from the Kremlin is by no means a surprise. After Putin’s decision to cancel his yearly press conference left some commentators suggesting the Russian President fears being unable to defend the current state of the “special military operation”, there is no room for signs of weakness.
Russian Political scientist Sergei Markovsees a Christmas truce in Ukraine as “impossible,” in part for religious reasons. He noted that the leaders of the Russian army were Orthodox Christians (who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7), whereas the leaders of the Armed Forces of Ukraine include plenty of Catholics and atheists who were “fighters against Orthodoxy.”
In his opinion, the few Ukrainian Orthodox soldiers are no more than “slaves and cannon fodder for the American and British generals who command the Ukrainian army.”
It may come down to whether Putin thinks that showing holiday spirit will play well at home, both with pro-war hawks and the general public. But a possible break in the fighting would matter most to one factor in the war that he's overlooked too often: troop morale.
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