Moscow on Wednesday said no “Christmas ceasefire” was on the cards after nearly 10 months of war in Ukraine, where the first major drone attack on the capital Kyiv in weeks damaged two buildings but was largely repelled by air defences.
The two sides are not currently engaged in talks to end the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions more and turned cities to rubble since Russia invaded its neighbour on Feb. 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this week Russia should start withdrawing from his country by Christmas as a step to end Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two. Moscow rejected the proposal outright, saying Ukraine must accept the loss of territory to Russia before any progress can be made.
Some contacts remain, however, leading to a series of prisoner swaps in recent weeks. In the latest, a U.S. citizen was among dozens of detainees handed over to Ukraine in an exchange with Russia, Washington said on Wednesday.
The head of Ukraine’s presidential administration Andriy Yermak identified the American as Suedi Murekezi, who he said had been “helping our people” before ending up in Russian custody. The Washington Post said Murekezi was a U.S. Air Force veteran born in Uganda.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby did not name the freed American, citing privacy concerns.
“We certainly welcome that news,” Kirby told reporters.
In Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said explosions rocked the city’s central Shevchenkivskyi district early in the morning and that two administrative buildings had been damaged. An air raid alert was lifted three hours after it began.
Officials said air defences had prevented serious damage. Zelenskiy said 13 drones had been shot down.
In one Kyiv district, residents said they heard the sound of an Iranian Shahed drone – known as “mopeds” by Ukrainians because of the loud whirring of their engines – followed by a powerful explosion at a building next to their homes.
“I was already in the kitchen – I heard everything – I heard the buzzing ‘moped’ and I ran into the bathroom,” said Yana, 39, who had been getting ready for work.
“I want this all to be over… For (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, that bastard, to die. Those are the only emotions.”
One attack appeared to have ripped through a chunk of the roof of a nearby walled-off brick building. It was unclear what the building was used for.
Some of the windows of nearby residential buildings had been smashed. Bits of the roof were strewn in the snow along with other debris. Shocked residents, wrapped up against the cold, said no one appeared to have been hurt.
The white tail of a drone could be seen in the wreckage. It had M529 Geran-2 written on it and a handwritten message “For Ryazan!!!”, an apparent reference to what Moscow says was a Ukrainian attack on an airstrip deep inside Russia this month.
Geran-2 is the name Russia gives the Shahed aircraft.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Wednesday an all-for-all prisoner of war swap deal was an option in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
“It is a known practice, and it can happen,” Mirjana Spoljaric told reporters. The ICRC emphasized it was up to the two countries to reach an agreement on the issue.
Neither the Red Cross or the two sides have made public precise numbers for each side’s war detainees. Spoljaric said there were thousands of such prisoners.
Ukraine has been pushing for more captives to be returned as part of talks with Russian representatives seeking the reopening of an ammonia gas pipeline through Ukraine, Reuters has reported. The pipeline is widely seen as important to lowering world prices for fertilizer made with the gas.
Russia, which calls the war a “special military operation”, has fired barrages of missile attacks on energy infrastructure since October. Ukraine’s grid operator said energy facilities had not sustained damage in Wednesday’s attack.
Ukraine wants to beef up its air defences to fend off more attacks. U.S. officials told Reuters this week that an announcement on a decision on providing the Patriot missile defence system to Ukraine could come as soon as Thursday.
In response, the Kremlin said Patriots would be a legitimate target for Russian strikes against Ukraine if Washington authorised their delivery.
Ukraine has already received air defences from the West, including from the United States. The Patriot is considered one of the most advanced.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces morning report highlighted the importance of such systems.
In the past 24 hours, it said, in the regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia “the enemy launched 1 air and 11 missile strikes, 3 of them on civilian infrastructure… (and) launched more than 60 attacks from multiple rocket launchers”.
And Russian shells hit the regional administration building on the central square of the recently liberated southern city of Kherson, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office said.
After a series of lightning Ukrainian counter-offensives which has seen Kyiv regain control over around half of the territory Moscow captured in the first weeks of the war, neither side has made significant territorial gains in the past month.