russian shelling undercuts putins cease fire order
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP-Getty Images

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — In the most intense battle now raging in Ukraine, the starting time of what Russia said would be a 36-hour cease-fire came and went on Friday. And Russian artillery shells kept streaking over the front line, just as they have for months.

There was no apparent letup in efforts by Moscow’s forces to hammer Ukrainians into giving up the small eastern city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk Province. With whistles and booms, artillery and mortar fire continued flying into Ukrainian-held areas from Russian positions to the east of the 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, 90 minutes after the ostensible cease-fire was supposed to have begun. The rattle of small arms and thud of explosions continued unabated.

The soldier’s assessment of the cease-fire: “It was just public relations.”

Ukrainian leaders never agreed to the cease-fire, timed to Christmas in the Orthodox Christian calendar, dismissing it as a cynical ploy by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to paint Ukraine as unwilling to make peace, while potentially giving Russian forces a breather. In any case, the Ukrainians said, they did not trust the Russians to stop shooting.

Fighting continued on other parts of the long front through southern and eastern Ukraine, as well; each side accusing the other of initiating it, saying 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 truce this was not.

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. Ukraine also said it had struck a temporary Russian military base in Kherson, injuring up to 100 Russian soldiers, a claim that could not be independently verified.

On Friday morning, as the supposed 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. 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.

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 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 cease-fire is supposed to run through midnight on Saturday.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Bakhmut, Ukraine. Megan Specia contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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