President Vladimir Putin blasted the West for trying to “tear apart” Russia and said his offensive in Ukraine aimed to “unite the Russian people”.
Meanwhile in Kyiv, a day after deadly shelling in southern Ukraine, residents held Christmas services on Sunday, defying Russian spiritual leaders who celebrate it on January 7.
Putin has used the concept of “historical Russia” to argue that Ukrainians and Russians are one people — undermining Kyiv’s sovereignty and justifying his 10-month offensive in Ukraine.
He said Russia’s “geopolitical opponents (were) aiming to tear apart Russia, the historical Russia,” Putin said in excerpts from an interview to be aired later on Sunday.
“Divide and conquer, that’s what they have always sought to accomplish and are still seeking to do,” Putin added.
“But our goal is different: it’s to unite the Russian people,” he said.
Putin said his government was acting “in the right direction… protecting our national interests, the interests of our citizens, of our people.”
He repeated that Moscow was ready to negotiate and appeared unfazed when asked about the new air defence system the United States will deliver to Ukraine.
“Of course we will destroy it, 100 percent!” Putin said, referring to the Patriot missile battery promised to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
– Kherson ‘terror’ –
In his first trip outside Ukraine since the offensive began, Zelensky earned firm pledges of support from US President Joe Biden, including the Pentagon’s most advanced air defence system.
Western military and financial aid has been crucial for Ukraine’s push back of Russian troops — including from Kherson, the only regional capital held by Russia.
Despite Russia’s retreat from the city, Kherson remains within reach of Moscow’s weaponry and under constant threat.
The Ukrainian army counted 71 strikes on the partly recaptured region on Saturday, including 41 on the main city, also named Kherson.
This included deadly shelling on a busy market in the city centre that left 10 people dead and 55 injured.
The Russian-installed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said on Telegram the shelling was “a disgusting provocation” by Ukraine used to blame Russia.
Zelensky blasted Russian “terror” and urged his compatriots to persevere as they observed a Christmas eve marked by destruction.
– Defiant Christmas –
On Sunday, church bells pealed throughout Kyiv as Orthodox Christians attended Christmas services, in break with the Russian spiritual leaders who will mark the holiday in two weeks.
At a service in central Kyiv, worshipper Olga Stanko told AFP she supported any move that would distance Ukraine from Russia.
“The war has brought us so much grief,” she said. “We cannot do this with Russia, remain under its influence.”
The decision by some Ukrainian churches to observe Christmas on December 25 highlights the rift between religious leaders in Kyiv and Moscow that has deepened.
An Interfax-Ukraine poll showed an increasing number in favour of moving the Christian holy day to December 25, jumping from 26 percent in 2021 to 44 percent in 2022, though 31 percent were still against it.
Ukraine had been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century, but part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with Moscow in 2019 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the east.
In May, the Russia-backed branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church also severed ties with Moscow.
All the way from the St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Pope Francis called for and end to the conflict.
“May the Lord… enlighten the minds of those who have the power to silence the thunder of weapons and put an immediate end to this senseless war!” the 86-year-old said.