Metropolitan Epifaniy, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, celebrates the Christmas service at the Pechersk Lavra cathedral in Kyiv, on Saturday. Photograph: Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA
Kyiv has dismissed a Russian claim to have killed more than 600 Ukrainian soldiers in a “revenge” rocket attack, as deadly fighting continued unabated despite Moscow’s announcement that its troops would cease fire over Orthodox Christmas.
The Kremlin said its truce would last for 36 hours on Friday and Saturday, but Ukrainian officials said battles continued throughout that time and that five civilians were killed and 23 injured in shelling over those two days.
A week after a Ukrainian missile strike on a barracks in the partly occupied Donetsk region killed 89 Russian troops, according to Moscow officials – hundreds, according to Ukraine – the Russian defence ministry said on Sunday it had “destroyed more than 600 Ukrainian servicemen” in what it called a “revenge operation”.
Kyiv denied that its forces suffered casualties in the overnight attack on Kramatorsk, a government-held city in Donetsk, despite several buildings being damaged in a rocket strike.
“This is an information operation by the Russian defence ministry, in response to the successful actions of the Ukrainian armed forces in striking their large gatherings of military personnel, their storage sites and logistics, with our high-precision attack weapons. They do not have the possibility to do this,” said Ukrainian military spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi.
Reporters for Reuters visited the two college dormitories in Kramatorsk where Russia said Ukrainian servicemen had been based at the time of the strike, and said there was no sign of casualties or that the buildings had suffered direct hits.
Fierce fighting continued in the Donetsk region, particularly around the Kyiv-controlled towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, but the frontline has barely moved since Ukraine recaptured the southern city of Kherson and surrounding areas west of the Dnipro river in early November.
“In the east, the situation is tough. In some areas of the Donetsk region, we are moving forward little by little, step by step. And in some, the enemy is attacking... Now it is very difficult in Soledar,” Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar wrote on social media on Sunday.
The Kremlin released photos of Russian president Vladimir Putin attending Christmas Mass alone, 10 months into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Mr Putin said in a Christmas message to Russians that the occasion “inspires noble deeds and aspirations, and serves to reinforce in society such eternal spiritual values and moral constants as mercy, empathy, kindness and justice”.
“It is deeply gratifying to note the enormous constructive contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations to unifying society,” he added, praising church groups for “supporting our warriors taking part in the special military operation”.
In Kyiv, Christmas Mass at the 1,000-year-old Pechersk Lavra monastery complex overlooking the Dnipro river was conducted for the first time by Metropolitan Epifaniy, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
The OCU secured Ukraine’s independence from Moscow in spiritual matters in 2019, and in recent days was granted permission to celebrate Christmas at the Lavra despite complaints from another branch of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine which until this year maintained close ties with Moscow and until last week controlled the monastery complex.
“It is very important that in the Lavra today… true prayers for Ukraine were heard,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Christmas address.
“Ukrainian independence should be strong in all its elements. And it will be that way, forever. Together, we are making sure of that,” he added.
In the latest prisoner exchange between the warring neighbours, 50 Ukrainian and 50 Russian soldiers were released on Sunday.