Putin's Christmas Truce was Designed to Fail
It's part his information war inside Russia and the West
Today, several Russian state news agencies reported that Putin offered a 36-hour “truce” along the entire line of contact in Ukraine, starting at 12:00pm January 6th, running through midnight on January 7th, designed to cover the Orthodox Christmas period. Notionally, the offer was originally proposed by Russian Patriarch Kirill, and agreed by Putin. Ukraine has already rejected it.
The interesting thing about this offer is that it was designed to fail. There’s no indication that Moscow ever expected it to be accepted; including that it does not appear to address any non-MOD forces, and runs counter to logistical indications that Russia is preparing for additional bombardments of Ukraine during the Christmas period.
It also conspicuously offered now; it was not offered for New Years’ or for December 25. The Russian government bombed civilian infrastructure in Ukraine relentlessly for both of those to maximize disruption. The decision to offer it only for Orthodox Christmas is quite relevant to why it was offered at all.
Sometimes in negotiations—often, in fact—people make offers not so much because they want an agreement, but because it is important to show non-parties to the agreement that an offer was made and it was rejected. This allows the offering party to argue that their “entirely reasonable” demands were rejected by the “unreasonable” opposite party, despite the offer being intentionally constructed to get to a “no”, not a “yes”.
That’s what happened here. Putin’s offer isn’t really directed at Ukraine. It’s directed at two main audiences: an internal Russian audience, and a Western one.
The internal audience is the Russian public as a whole. A failed truce gives their propaganda two “helpful” strands to play with. The first is an argument that Russian government bombing of Ukraine isn’t really Russia’s fault, but somehow Ukraine’s. Any civilian casualties during Russia’s expected bombardment of Ukraine over the next few days will be grossly and instantly rationalized and justified—no matter how irrational and unjustifiable—as Ukraine “deserving it” for refusing the truce.
It’s important to remember that these arguments aren’t—and aren’t designed to be—coherent. Their purpose is to let people pre-inclined to believe it a simple way to self-rationalize their decision to support Russia’s war.
The second strand is a cynical excuse to draw on the Russian Orthodox establishment itself over the Christmas as a tool of propaganda and morale internally too, and to align it (again) explicitly to the Russian war. Putin’s failed truce lets them argue his religious piety and desire for peace in churches in Russia while he simultaneously bombs schools and apartments in Ukraine, and that Orthodox Christmas was unpeaceful because of Ukrainian leadership’s refusal of the truce, not because of Russian leadership’s decision to invade and continue operations during the period.
It also lets them use the dueling Christmas dates in Ukraine to argue that Kyiv’s decision to avoid the truce is uniquely anti-Orthodox, for a convenient repivot to why Putin, and not Ukraine, is the one who truly cares about the interests of the “Russian-speaking Christians” in the ostensibly-annexed regions of Eastern Ukraine, and why support of Putin’s war is the right approach for all Orthodox adherents in churches across Russia.
The Western-directed narrative is also important, and draws on the same two strands, but with a slightly more Western-orientation. Here, the argument will be that Zelensky was offered, but is not interested in peace, as an argument for reducing Western support to Ukraine. That will probably also draw on distorted comparisons with the famous “World War I Christmas Truce” that has, in recent decades, come to take on an over-sentimentalized and saccharin status in Western narratives of what that war and event was. For example, it will ignore how that truce was an emergent phenomenon from the trenches directed by soldiers in the trenches themselves despite military leadership, not directed by leadership.
It also makes for a convenient way to slot-in to pre-existing “war on Christmas” / “war on Christians” culture-war tropes in the United States and certain parts of Europe too, as a way of ultimately seeking to demoralize support in the West. Such narratives will inevitably ignore Russia’s bombing of Ukraine over the western Christmas period without even the pretense of a truce being offered. But again, such arguments are not designed to be coherent.
As is the nature of traps, Ukraine cannot avoid this trap by simply agreeing to the truce. Were they to do so, Russian forces would immediately break it in order to invite a response, whereupon Russia would then immediately declare the truce violated by Ukraine. Ukraine’s best bet—which to their credit, they appear to already have adopted—is to ignore it for the propaganda it is.
That all said, Russian propaganda to demoralize Western support is slowly getting louder, and at some point Ukraine and its allies will need to reckon with it directly.
But that, at least, is a problem that will have to wait until after Christmas.
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I’m not too concerned about the “war on Christmas” angle being picked up by anyone in the US other than the folks on the right who already look for pro-Putin anti-Ukraine talking points. The US is mighty parochial. Russia was seen deliberately launching especially brutal waves of missile and drone attacks on “real” Christmas and New Year’s in Ukraine - that’s already an established tale that generated widespread sympathy for the Ukrainians. Putin declaring a limited ceasefire 2 weeks after Ukraine celebrated Christmas isn’t going to impress many Americans favorably.
The Russian Christmas celebration calendar simply isn’t a “real” Christmas for most Americans, just a Russian peculiarity they don’t take seriously. For the uninformed, claiming it’s a “Christmas” ceasefire looks more like another attempt by Moscow to impose itself on the (correctly celebrating) Ukrainians. The splits between the Moscow patriarchate and Ukraine’s Orthodox church(es) will touch sensitive points in the Russian domestic audience but will fly right over the heads of all but a few Americans.
On the religious issue, Americans will be much more susceptible to negative framing of Zelensky’s attempts to limit subversive activities by Ukrainian religious personnel who acknowledge the Moscow patriarchate’s authority. Given Americans’ attachment to “religious liberty” it’s easy to activate a story of the Moscow-linked Ukrainian churches, monasteries and people being “persecuted” for religious “beliefs”.
Zelensky’s folks need to appreciate how dangerous it would be for the “persecution” story to take root with Americans. It’s likely to make an unlovely appearance in GOP-led House hearings on aid to Ukraine. If they don’t head it off soon, it will become another “Ukrainians are neo-nazis” zombie story that will keep raising its ugly head no matter how often put down.