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Russians joined other Eastern European nations in celebrating their Orthodox Christmas last weekend, though the war on the border dampened the festivities. Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the families of soldiers killed in the conflict to Christmas Eve services at his Moscow residence. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church – itself the world’s largest – called on his fellow compatriots to pray for Russia to be saved from an “alien evil,” the Associated Press reported.
Last year, Kirill had called for a truce on Orthodox Christmas, traditionally observed on Jan. 7. Ukraine had rejected the proposal, calling it a “cynical trap.” This time around, Ukrainians celebrated Christmas for the first time on Dec. 25 to assert a national identity apart from its behemoth neighbor. No new truce was offered: On Sunday, Russia shelled the Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Kharkiv, killing three people, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, about 300 civilians were evacuated from the Russian border city of Belgorod after Ukraine strikes killed 25 last week, Al Jazeera reported.
Despite this, peace seems to remain on the table. Bloomberg reported that a secret meeting took place in Saudi Arabia last month between Ukraine, its Western allies, and countries in the Global South, to discuss support for Kyiv in peace talks with Moscow. The secrecy of the session was aimed at encouraging more hesitant partners to join.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has criticized the West’s supply of arms to Ukraine. On the other hand, a Kharkiv prosecutor’s office on Saturday confirmed US claims that Russia used ammunition provided by North Korea, the Korea Times reported. The Hermit Kingdom has faced a Russia-backed United Nations arms embargo since 2006. Moscow declined to comment.
At the same time, Russia is preparing for its March 15-17 presidential election. The National Elections Commission on Tuesday greenlit the Communist Party’s candidate’s bid to enter the race, the Associated Press reported. Lawmaker Nikolai Kharitonov, opposed to some of Putin’s home policies but not the war, joins two other candidates from factions supporting the president’s party in parliament.
In the well-oiled process that is a Russian election, Kharitonov is likely to claim second place as Putin secures another term, analysts say, having increased repression against critics over the past few years. Pro-peace candidate Yekaterina Duntsova’s bid to run was quashed due to alleged paperwork mistakes. Meanwhile, Putin’s real rival, Alexei Navalny, is serving a 19-year prison sentence in an Arctic penal colony for “extremism.”