Russia has called for peace even as it executes its war in Ukraine for a 44th week.
Moscow has rejected Ukraine’s peace terms and threatened a worse military fate if it does not accept Russia’s terms instead.
“Our goal is not to spin the flywheel of military conflict but, on the contrary, to end this war,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week, a day after his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressed the United States Congress in person.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby expressed skepticism, saying Putin has “shown absolutely zero indication that he is willing to negotiate” to bring an end to the 10-month conflict.
“Quite the contrary,” Kirby said, “everything [Putin] is doing on the ground and in the air bespeaks a man who wants to continue to visit violence upon the Ukrainian people” and “escalate the war”.
The Ukrainian General Staff reported observing an increased volume of railway transport of Russian troops, equipment and ammunition to combat areas on Friday.
Geolocated footage showed a train loaded with Russian T-90M and T-62M tanks heading towards Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk from Rostov in Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s operations on the eastern front may be bearing fruit. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said the pace of Russian attacks in Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk is slowing.
“Russian military bloggers acknowledged that Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut area have managed to slightly slow down the pace of the Russian advance around Bakhmut and its surrounding settlements, with one claiming that Ukrainian forces pushed back elements of the Wagner Group to positions they held days ago,” the think tank said.
“Russian forces made slightly fewer overall advances in the Bakhmut area in November and December combined as compared to the month of October,” the institute said, citing its own assessments.
Ukraine also maintained its long-range drone attacks on a Russian air base, most likely for the psychological effect of showing it can strike deep inside Russian territory.
Russian sources reported explosions on Sunday night near the Engels Airbase in Saratov, 500km (310 miles) inside Russian territory.
The Russian Ministry of Defence said its forces shot down a Ukrainian drone that was approaching the Engels airfield at low altitude and the wreckage killed three Russian servicemen.
Putin used Christmas Day to renew peace overtures, saying in a television interview that Russia was ready to negotiate.
But his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was more direct, threatening Ukraine with an ultimatum.
“Our proposals for the demilitarisation and denazification of the territories controlled by the regime, the elimination of threats to Russia’s security emanating from there, including our new lands, are well known to the enemy,” state news agency TASS quoted Lavrov as saying on Monday.
“The point is simple: Fulfil them for your own good. Otherwise, the issue will be decided by the Russian army,” Lavrov said.
Russian references to “demilitarisation” usually mean the surrender of Ukrainian territories as buffer zones and foregoing any future membership in NATO.
Putin and other Russian officials have often referred to Zelenskyy and his government as Nazis, and “denazification” is usually taken to mean a removal of the Ukrainian government.
Lavrov said Ukraine’s “futile” resistance, encouraged by the US, is what is prolonging and escalating the war.
“As for the duration of the conflict, the ball is on the side of the regime and Washington behind it,” he said. “They can stop senseless resistance at any moment.”
The US has been Ukraine’s biggest supporter so far. Its House of Representatives approved $45bn in defence and financial aid to Kyiv last week in addition to the $70bn approved earlier this year.
Andre Frank, an economist at the Kiel Institute for World Economy, told Al Jazeera that the US, UK and Germany were the three biggest national spenders on military aid to Ukraine with current commitments of 22.86 billion euros ($24.37bn), 4.13 billion euros ($4.4bn) and 2.34 billion euros ($2.49bn) respectively.
The European Union members, collectively and individually, have pledged 11.71 billion euros ($12.48bn) so far, Frank said.
On Monday, Zelenskyy, who had already outlined a peace plan at the G20 summit in Indonesia last month, asked India, the body’s new president, and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to help implement the plan.
“It was on this platform that I announced the peace formula, and now I count on India’s participation in its implementation,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Ukraine seeks to launch a peace conference by February under the United Nations’ watch.
The peace plan includes the departure of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory they have occupied since 2014, including the Donbas and Crimea regions. Zelenskyy also wants Russian commanders and politicians held accountable at a war crimes tribunal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia will not be held to conditions laid down by others.
Putin on Tuesday banned oil sales to countries and companies enforcing a $60 price cap imposed by Western nations and their allies. The idea behind the price cap was to reduce the volume of Russia’s oil exports and the revenue they bring in to run its war in Ukraine.
Russia has typically favoured production cuts to maintain oil prices when faced with the prospect of falling revenues from oil.
Russia is the world’s second-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia, pumping about a tenth of the global demand.