BAKHMUT, Ukraine — There was no truce in Bakhmut on Friday. Russian artillery shells kept streaking overhead and thudding into Ukrainian-held territory through the afternoon and evening, just as they had for months, despite a supposed 36-hour cease-fire declared by Russia.
There were scattered reports of attacks elsewhere in Ukraine, but the clearest contradiction of the promised lull in the fighting was in Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk Province, the scene of the most intense recent fighting of the war. The starting time of the supposed cease-fire, noon on Friday, came and went with no apparent letup in Moscow’s efforts to hammer the Ukrainians into giving up this small city.
“Just listen,” one Ukrainian soldier, who used the nickname Navar, said while standing on an otherwise deserted street in the city, at about 1:30 p.m. on Friday. The rattle of small arms, the whistle of artillery and mortar shells, the shudder of explosions all continued unabated.
The soldier’s assessment of the cease-fire: “It was just public relations.”
Ukrainian leaders had never agreed to the cease-fire, announced unilaterally by the Kremlin on Thursday and timed to Christmas in the Orthodox Christian calendar on Saturday, though Kyiv did not reject the idea outright. They dismissed it as a cynical propaganda ploy by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, as well as a bid to give battered Russian forces a breather. In any case, the Ukrainians said, they did not trust the Russians to stop shooting.
Fighting continued on Friday along several parts of the front, which stretches hundreds of miles through southern and eastern Ukraine. Each side accused the other of initiating it, saying that their forces were just defending themselves. It was not immediately possible to verify their claims, or to determine how the intensity of combat compared to previous days.
But a cease-fire this was not.
Ukrainian officials and military analysts warned that the Kremlin would use any respite to replenish battered units, ferrying fresh troops, weapons and ammunition to the front. In his nightly video address, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Thursday that the government in Moscow “wants to use Christmas as a cover” to regroup and thwart Ukrainian advances.
The State of the War
- Cease-Fire: On Jan. 5, the Kremlin announced a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine to mark the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Amid continued attacks, Ukraine’s leaders dismissed the idea as cynical posturing by an untrustworthy enemy.
- Sexual Crimes: After months of bureaucratic and political delays, Ukrainian officials are gathering pace in documenting sexual crimes committed by Russian forces during the war.
- A New Resource: The Pentagon will provide to Kyiv Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which offer greater protection and firepower than any of the trucks or armored personnel carriers the West has sent so far.
- Targeting Cellphones: Ukraine is able to target Russian soldiers by pinpointing their cellphone signals. Despite the deadly results, Moscow’s troops keep defying a ban on using phones.
“Everyone in the world knows how the Kremlin uses lulls in the war to continue the war with new force,” he added, and he addressed the Russian people directly, in Russian, speaking of those who “sent all of your people to be slaughtered” and “do not strive for peace.”
Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has endured international condemnation and isolation, and seen its war effort stumble badly. Political analysts said that the Kremlin would try to use the Christmas cease-fire announcement — which it cast as nothing more than a bid to allow soldiers and others on both sides to celebrate the holiday and attend church services — for a badly needed public relations boost, both at home and abroad.
Sure enough, the Kremlin and its allies on Friday portrayed Russia as the reasonable peacemaker and Ukraine as the aggressor, and to bolster Mr. Putin’s claim to be the defender of Orthodox Christianity against a decadent and godless West, though most Ukrainians are also Orthodox Christians.
The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader publicly called for the cease-fire hours before it was announced, have developed an increasingly close alliance.
“Ukrainians were offered a hand of Christian mercy on the great holiday,” Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former Russian president and the deputy chairman of Mr. Putin’s security council, wrote on Telegram. “Their leaders rejected it.”
A Russian proxy official in occupied Ukraine, Vladimir Rogov, wrote on Telegram, “There can’t be a Christmas truce with Satanists by definition.”
The cease-fire could be an attempt, some analysts said, to avoid heavy casualties during Christmas and the backlash that might result. In the past week, Ukraine has claimed to kill or wound more than 1,000 Russian soldiers with artillery strikes on concentrations of newly mobilized troops behind the front lines, though those numbers could not be independently verified.
Starting in late summer, Ukrainian forces were able to go on the offensive with weapons and training supplied by other nations, particularly the United States, which has provided well over $20 billion in military aid. But in recent weeks there has been little movement in the front lines, despite continued fighting.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced an additional $3 billion worth of weapons and military equipment, which will include 50 Bradley fighting vehicles. This week, France, Germany and the United States each agreed for the first time to send advanced armored infantry vehicles like the Bradley, which could be crucial to Ukrainian forces’ mobility as they attempt to resume the offensive.
The armored vehicles are the latest example of Western powers providing weapons that they had refused to supply earlier in the war, for fear of Russian escalation. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, suggested that it marked a decisive shift in allied attitudes.
“The president’s diplomatic team has managed to convince the allies: The time of weapons taboo has passed,” he wrote on Facebook.
Bakhmut, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, is among the few locations where Russian forces have remained on the offensive, even as they have lost ground elsewhere. Russian soldiers and fighters with a Russian private military contracting company have trench lines in fields just to the east of the city, and regularly try to push forward into outlying districts.
On Friday morning shortly before noon, Ukrainian soldiers flying drones for surveillance observed groups of Russian soldiers dash forward into abandoned houses, trying to gain a foothold in the city, as they have for months.
The ensuing firefight in streets began before noon and raged on afterward, closing off a road Ukrainian soldiers use to resupply their positions in eastern Bakhmut. Artillery and mortar fire rained down on Ukrainian-held areas, and the Ukrainians fired back.
The supposed cease-fire is scheduled to run through midnight on Saturday.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Ukrainian forces had fired on Russian positions in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, and that Russian forces returned fire. Ukraine’s military later countered that Russian jets had fired 12 missiles in the regions of Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk, and that Russian forces had fired on Bakhmut and in and around the regions of Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the southeast.
On Friday morning, as the time for the cease-fire approached, there were a number of Russian strikes, including one on a firehouse in the southern city of Kherson that officials said killed at least one person. Russian forces have been relentlessly bombarding the area since they were forced to retreat from the city in November.
Ukraine’s State Emergency Services shared photographs of the aftermath of the attack, including an image of the body of a firefighter covered with a tarp, the person’s uniform visible under the covering. A number of emergency response vehicles were also damaged.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, posted an image of what appeared to be the bloodied hand of a firefighter on his Telegram account.
“They talk about a ‘cease-fire,’” Mr. Tymoshenko wrote. “This is beyond the understanding of any civilized act.”
“Assassins, terrorists and bloodthirsty people,” he said. “This is who we are at war with.”
Mr. Tymoshenko said that a residential area had been hit in a Russian attack on the city of Kramatorsk, and that Russian shells had struck apartment buildings and a hospital in the town of Kurakhove, both in eastern Ukraine. It was not clear if the attacks took place before or after the scheduled noon start of the cease-fire.
Megan Specia, Anatoly Kurmanaev, Natalia Yermak, Oleg Matsnev, Cassandra Vinograd and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.