Ukraine’s war: The Christmas truce that wasn’t

The drive from Kostyantynivka to Bakhmut is like falling off a civilisational cliff.

The “pops” of incoming tank fire indicate that you are approaching one of the most active parts of the front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

They also demonstrate that Russia’s declared 36-hour ceasefire is only in name.

“They promised one, but we haven’t seen or felt it,” says Oleksandr, a Ukrainian soldier.

The constant bangs of incoming artillery serve to emphasize his point. Then, 50 meters away from where we are speaking, a shell lands.

I jump. Oleksandr is unafraid. “What’s the point of it all?” he wonders. While standing in the nearly destroyed main square, this is a perfectly reasonable question.

Oleksandr, a Ukrainian soldier
“There has been no real impact of the ceasefire on the ground,” says Oleksandr “Everything is deteriorating. Civilians are being killed, soldiers are being killed, and our people are perishing.”

Russian forces are about a mile away on the city’s eastern outskirts. They’ve tried everything since the summer to take Bakhmut in order to push further west, but the city hasn’t fallen.

On Thursday, Vladimir Putin declared a cease-fire that his troops would enforce along the front lines.

It would run from Friday at midday until Saturday at midnight. He claimed it was done to allow Orthodox Christians to celebrate Christmas.

Ukraine rejected it almost immediately. It doesn’t appear to be a day worth remembering for those who remain in Bakhmut.

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Sergiy, a civilian, proves me wrong as he rakes leaves into a bin.

“You wouldn’t wish this to your worst enemy, but we celebrated Christmas as usual,” he says.

“We did have a Christmas tree and decorations, but they were in the basement.”

Sergiy rakes leaves on the side of a Bakhmut street.
Sergiy is one of the few civilians remaining in Bakhmut.
Inside the city, you don’t expect to meet anyone who isn’t a soldier. Out of an original population of 50,000, only a few thousand people remain.

Military vehicles move quickly along the icy roads. We can’t stand still for more than five minutes. Staying would make us a target.

It’s difficult to imagine the shelling being more intense, but Sergiy claims it’s not.

“Do you notice the missing roof?” he inquires. “That was quite audible. It was very loud where the bus depot was hit. It was quite audible when this lamppost was struck. So far, so good.”

The map depicts the border between eastern Ukraine and Russia, as well as the city of Bakhmut in the Donbas region.
1 pixel clear line
Vladimir Putin’s declaration of a truce was significant as a tip of the iceberg. It’s the first time either side has used such language since the invasion began in earnest.

Eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, is no stranger to conflict. Since 2014, when Moscow first backed separatist militants here, it has been the focal point of Russia’s aggression.

There have also been numerous cease-fire attempts over the years. Most have failed, and few in Bakhmut expected this latest attempt to succeed.

Siobhan Leahy, Hanna Chornous, Paul Francis, and Artem Bilov contributed reporting.

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