January 5, 2023

Putin’s last-minute call for a cease-fire on Orthodox Christmas likely an ‘information operation’

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will conduct a 36-hour ceasefire between January 6 and January 7 in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas is likely an information operation intended to damage Ukraine’s reputation. Putin instructed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to initiate a ceasefire from 1200 January 6 to 2400 January 7 along the “entire line of contact between parties in Ukraine” and called on Ukraine to accept the ceasefire to allow “a large number of citizens of citizens professing Orthodoxy” to attend services on the day of Russian Orthodox Christmas.[1] Putin’s announcement was ostensibly in response to an appeal by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church) for a temporary ceasefire in observance of Christmas Eve and the Day of the Nativity of Christ.[2] Ukrainian and Western officials, including US President Joe Biden, immediately highlighted the hypocrisy of the ceasefire announcement and emphasized that Russian forces continued striking Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure on December 25—when many Orthodox Ukrainians celebrate Christmas—and New Year’s.[3]

Putin could have been seeking to secure a 36-hour pause for Russian troops to afford them the ability to rest, recoup, and reorient to relaunch offensive operations in critical sectors of the front. Such a pause would disproportionately benefit Russian troops and begin to deprive Ukraine of the initiative. Putin cannot reasonably expect Ukraine to meet the terms of this suddenly declared ceasefire and may have called for the ceasefire to frame Ukraine as unaccommodating and unwilling to take the necessary steps towards negotiations. This is an intentional information tactic that Russia has previously employed, as ISW has reported.[4] Ceasefires also take time to organize and implement. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notably said on December 14 that Russia has no plans for a ceasefire for Russian Orthodox Christmas, so Putin’s sudden January 5 announcement was surprising.[5] The date of Russian Orthodox Christmas in 2023, after all, has been known for centuries. Had Putin been serious about a religiously motivated ceasefire he had ample time to prepare for it. The announcement of a ceasefire within 24 hours of when it is meant to enter into force suggests that it was announced with the intention of framing Ukrainian forces who continue to fight throughout the timeframe of the ceasefire as unwilling to work towards peace and wanting to fight at all costs.

Putin’s framing of the ceasefire on religious grounds additionally reinforces another two-fold Russian information operation that frames Ukraine as suppressing religious groups and positions Putin as the true protector of the Christian faith. As ISW has previously observed, the Kremlin has weaponized discussions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to accuse Kyiv of oppressing religious liberties in Ukraine.[6] Russian sources have recently picked up on raids carried out by the Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) against Russian Orthodox churches and clergy members and Ukrainian sanctions against Kremlin-linked elements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).[7] These measures are not efforts to suppress religious liberties in Ukraine but rather are aimed at explicitly pro-Kremlin elements of the Russian Orthodox Church that have materially, politically, and spiritually supported Russian aggression against Ukraine.[8] The invocation of a ceasefire on distinctly religious grounds in line with Russian Orthodox Christian tradition is a subcomponent of this information operation. Suddenly announcing a ceasefire with Ukraine that should have been negotiated well in advance in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas will allow Russia to frame Ukraine as infringing on the right of believers to celebrate the holiday as hostilities will likely continue into January 6 and 7. This information operation can support the baseless Kremlin narrative that Ukraine was persecuting Orthodox Christians and Russian speakers, a narrative that Putin has repeatedly advanced as justification for his illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The ceasefire announcement positions Putin as the guarantor of Christian values and beliefs. Putin and other Russian officials have frequently framed the war in Ukraine as a religious war against “Satanic” and “fanatical” elements of Ukrainian society that seek to undermine traditional religious values and morality.[9] Putin’s proposed ceasefire supports false Russian information operations that Russia is fighting a holy war against an immoral Ukrainian society and its secular Western overseers. In actuality, Russian forces have suppressed religious freedom in occupied Ukrainian territory since 2014.[10]

The pro-war Russian milblogger information space responded to the ceasefire announcement with vitriolic discontent. Several prominent milbloggers emphasized that Russian soldiers do not want a ceasefire at all and remarked that it is a useless, defeatist ploy that is unlikely to succeed in the first place.[11] One milblogger who was previously embedded with Russian units in Bakhmut and attended the annexation ceremony at the Kremlin in September employed overtly genocidal, dehumanizing rhetoric in response to the ceasefire and stated that Russian soldiers do not want compromise: They “want to kill every person dressed in the uniform of the enemy army, regardless of gender and the circumstances that forced the subhuman [sic] to wear this uniform.”[12] This level of vitriol originating from milbloggers who are typically fairly aligned with Putin’s line on the war is noteworthy and undermines Putin’s ability to present Russia as the party that is willing to negotiate. Putin’s continued association with this milblogger community, especially those who frequently openly call for genocide, continues to demonstrate the fact that Putin has not decided to compromise his aims in Ukraine.

Putin reiterated his maximalist objectives in a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on January 5. Putin emphasized that Moscow remains open to negotiations with Kyiv as long as such negotiations “take into account new territorial realities.”[13] Accounting for “territorial realities” in the context of negotiations means hammering Ukraine into making concessions that directly undermine its territorial sovereignty.[14] NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg also noted on January 5 that there are no indicators that the Kremlin’s ambitions have changed.[15]

The use of a ceasefire as an information operation, coupled with Putin’s continued propagation of maximalist goals in Ukraine, continues to indicate that Putin has no desire to actually negotiate with Ukraine. Additionally, Putin’s continued alignment with and decision to platform milbloggers who routinely use openly genocidal language and call for unrestrained hostilities offer clear indicators of his intentions along these lines. If and when Putin becomes serious about seeking compromises that Ukraine and the West could seriously contemplate accepting, he will have set conditions with the vocal and prominent nationalist community he is currently empowering and courting. He could threaten, marginalize, de-platform, co-opt, or cajole the pro-war milbloggers into accepting more limited objectives, but such activities would be apparent in the information space. As long as Putin continues to give air and prominence to such extremists, however, it will remain clear that he does not intend to abandon his maximalist aims.

Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that prisoners who volunteered with the Wagner Group in Ukraine received pardons, likely in a bid to inflate his influence and political power. Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported that Prigozhin told reporters that two dozen former prisoners completed six-moth contracts with the Wagner Group fighting in Ukraine and received pardons.[16] Russian sources published footage of Prigozhin holding a ceremony for the Wagner Group personnel at a rehabilitation center in Anapa, Krasnodar Krai, in which he awarded the former prisoners state medals and pardon papers.[17] ISW has not observed any official Russian government source comment on whether the Wagner personnel did indeed receive these pardons. Under the Russian Criminal Code and Article 89 of the Russian Constitution, only the Russian President may issue a pardon to an individual, although regionally based pardon commissions and individuals may petition the Russian President to pardon specific individuals.[18] It is possible that Prigozhin submitted petitions to pardon the former prisoners on their behalf. It is also possible that Prigozhin is claiming that the former prisoners received pardons when in actuality a Russian court may have issued them a “Release from Punishment” (a commuting of a prison sentence and/or other criminal punishment) or the State Duma of the Russian Federation granted the former prisoners amnesty.[19] ISW has not observed any official Russian sources report that a Russian court or the State Duma has taken either of these legal actions on behalf of these former prisoners, although it is perfectly possible that they did. Previous reporting suggested that the Wagner Group promised prisoners “full exemption from their criminal punishment” and not necessarily that prisoners would receive pardons.[20]

Prigozhin is likely using the ambiguity of the legal status of these former prisoners to create the impression that he is influential enough to be able to secure pardons for Wagner Group personnel. Prigozhin likely publicized the granting of the pardon papers to reflect this supposed influence in support of ongoing efforts to cast himself as the central figure in the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.[21] By appearing to take public credit for pardoning these criminals Prigozhin risks seeming to arrogate to himself powers that only Putin actually wields.

Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to strengthen the Wagner Group’s ongoing recruitment of prisoners and to assuage current Wagner Group personnel’s possible concerns about promised legal rewards. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on December 22, 2022, that the Wagner Group currently has 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.[22] Kirby reported that over 1,000 Wagner Group personnel died in Ukraine in a month, and Russian opposition outlet The Insider reported on November 5 that 500 former prisoners volunteering with the Wagner Group died in Ukraine in two months.[23] The Wagner Group likely needs to replenish its forces after heavy losses, predominantly of former prisoners, and Prigozhin likely publicized the supposed pardons to augment the Wagner Group’s recruitment campaign in Russian prisons. Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to reassure the reportedly 80 percent of deployed Wagner Group personnel in Ukraine who have been promised some type of legal reward for their participation in hostilities. Prigozhin has increasingly pinned his standing in the Russian ultra-nationalist pro-war community on the Wagner Group’s ability to capture territory and, particularly, on its offensive on Bakhmut.[24] Prigozhin likely intends to further motivate Wagner personnel and generate new paramilitary forces in a misguided and implausible effort to reverse the culmination of the Bakhmut offensive.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will conduct a 36-hour ceasefire in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas is likely an information operation intended to damage Ukraine’s reputation.
  • Putin’s framing of the ceasefire on religious ground reinforces another Russian information operation that falsely frames Ukraine as suppressing religious groups and positions Putin as the true protector of the Christian faith.
  • Putin has not changed his fundamental maximalist objectives in Ukraine.
  • Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that prisoners who volunteered with the Wagner Group in Ukraine received pardons, likely in a bid to inflate his influence and political power, strengthen Wagner Group’s prisoner recruitment, and reassure Wagner Group criminals in uniform.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line, and Russian forces claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the area.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a successful counterattack as Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued to operate sabotage and reconnaissance groups on the Dnipro River and reinforce positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed recent Russian successes in Zaporizhia Oblast, likely to distract from the slow Russian offensive around Bakhmut that may be culminating.
  • Mobilized Russian servicemembers likely continue to represent an outsized portion of Russian military casualties in Ukraine.
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