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An Orthodox Christmas Truce in Ukraine?
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An Orthodox Christmas Truce in Ukraine?

Ukrainian and Western officials doubt the sincerity of Putin’s declaration of a temporary ceasefire.

Happy Friday! Bessie Hendricks, believed to be the oldest living person in the United States, died on Tuesday in Lake City, Iowa at the age of 115.

She was the only one old enough to remember how we wriggled out of our last speakership stalemate, and now she’s gone. Rest in peace, Bessie.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Members-elect failed once again to elect a Speaker of the House on Thursday, as no candidate for the position received the requisite majority support in the seventh, eighth, or ninth, tenth, or eleventh round of voting before the chamber adjourned for the evening just after 8 p.m. ET. Rep. Kevin McCarthy once again faced 21 Republican defections on all five rounds of balloting, with one lawmaker voting “present” and 20 lawmakers throwing their support behind a combination of Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, and former President Donald Trump. McCarthy and his allies believe they are close to a deal with some of the holdouts after another round of concessions—which reportedly included seats for Freedom Caucus members on the House Rules Committee, a promise to allow a vote on term limits for members, and a further reduction in the number of lawmakers required to trigger a vote on ousting the speaker—but that agreement, if it comes to pass, is still expected to leave him a few votes short of 218, and could alienate some of his more moderate backers. The House is set to reconvene today at noon for additional votes.
  • Ahead of his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border since taking office, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a series of measures aimed at curbing the record levels of undocumented border crossings seen in recent years. Under the plan, the Biden administration will increase the use of expedited removal for illegal migrants while providing entry and work authorizations for up to 30,000 individuals from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti every month who have an “eligible sponsor and pass vetting and background checks.” 
  • The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday proposed a new regulation that would ban non-compete clauses in labor contracts that restrict an employee’s ability to leave their job for a competitor or start a competing business for a set amount of time or in a specific geographic area. Studies have found approximately one in five American workers are bound by a non-compete agreement and the FTC alleges the practice unfairly suppresses wages and stifles innovation. Business groups, however, claim the provisions encourage employers to invest more in workplace training and boost information sharing. The FTC’s move will almost assuredly face lawsuits before it is set to go into effect in a few months.
  • South Carolina’s Supreme Court held on Thursday the state’s six-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies—which went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer—violates the right to privacy outlined in the state’s constitution. “The State unquestionably has the authority to limit the right of privacy that protects women from state interference with her decision, but any such limitation must be reasonable and it must be meaningful in that the time frames imposed must afford a woman sufficient time to determine she is pregnant and to take reasonable steps to terminate that pregnancy,” Justice Kaye Hearn wrote in the majority opinion. “Six weeks is, quite simply, not a reasonable period of time for these two things to occur.” Following the 3-2 decision, abortion will remain legal in South Carolina up to a gestational age of 22 weeks.
  • Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan announced Thursday she will not seek reelection in 2024, setting the stage for what will likely be two crowded primaries and a competitive general election. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Reps. Elissa Slotkin, Debbie Dingell, and Haley Stevens are rumored contenders on the Democratic side, while Republican operatives floated former Rep. Peter Meijer and Reps. John James and Bill Huizinga as possible options. Buttigieg—who moved from Indiana to Michigan last summer to be closer to his husband’s family—issued a statement saying he is currently “not seeking any other job.”
  • A new law went into effect in Louisiana this week requiring websites comprised of more than “thirty-three and one-third percent” sexually explicit material to perform age verification checks on individuals attempting to access the content through the state’s LA Wallet digital driver’s license app. Proponents of the legislation hope to shield minors from easily accessible pornography, while critics argue the law raises privacy concerns and could drive people to platforms with fewer production regulations.
  • The Buffalo Bills announced Thursday that Damar Hamlin—the 24-year-old safety who collapsed during Monday night’s game after suffering cardiac arrest—had made “substantial improvement” over the past 24 hours, waking up and being able to move his extremities while communicating via writing on a clipboard. The Bills’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals which was suspended after Hamlin was injured will not be made up, but the NFL is planning to play all its Week 18 games in the coming days as scheduled.
  • The average number of weekly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States decreased about 3.5 percent over the past two weeks according to Centers for Disease Control, while the average number of weekly deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—decreased 6.5 percent. About 42,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up from about 33,500 two weeks ago.
  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 19,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 204,000 last week, remaining near historically low pre-pandemic levels.

Ceasefire in the Morning, Shelling at Night

DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE – JAN 5: Ukrainian soldiers in a trench on the Vuhledar frontline in Donetsk oblast (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The family of three living in a town in the Kherson Oblast of Ukraine might have heard that the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church—Patriarch Kirill* of Moscow, a fan of the invasion who once preached that military services erases sins—had proposed a temporary ceasefire in honor of Orthodox Christmas. But whatever they thought of the idea, it didn’t keep a Russian shell from striking their home a few hours later, killing them.

“In the morning they talk about the ‘Christmas truce,’ and already at lunch they kill the whole family,” wrote Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s Office of the President. “What did the husband, wife, and their 12-year-old son do?”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered a seemingly unilateral ceasefire to take effect from noon January 6th through midnight January 7th to honor the Orthodox calendar’s Christmas Eve and Christmas—a move Ukrainian and Western officials have dismissed as a propaganda play and a chance for Russian forces to regroup. Western countries followed the ceasefire’s announcement by pledging more military aid to Ukraine, including Bradley armored vehicles as part of an expected $2.85 billion weapons package from the U.S.

Putin accompanied his ceasefire declaration with a call for Ukraine to follow suit: “Based on the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the combat areas, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ.”

It’s a nice gesture in theory—an unofficial Christmas truce between British and German troops in 1914 is the stuff of World War I legend—but Ukrainian officials are understandably dubious of the Kremlin’s true intentions. They pointed out that if Putin really wanted a ceasefire, he could withdraw troops. “[Russia] must leave the occupied territories,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak argued. “Only then will it have a ‘temporary truce.’” Oleksiy Danilov, a national security and defense official, agreed: “Lies and hypocrisy. We will bite you in the singing silence of the Ukrainian night.”

Western analysts see the ceasefire announcement as Putin’s attempt to stall Ukraine and present himself as a peacemaker. “Russia is trying [to] arrest [Ukraine’s] momentum, even if it’s just rhetorical momentum,” said Bryan Clark, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology. “I think Russia’s gambit is, if they execute a unilateral ceasefire, Ukraine will feel compelled [to] slow down if not stop their advance, because otherwise Ukrainians are now in the position of appearing like they’re being overly aggressive, exploiting the weakness of the Russians.”

But Western officials aren’t pushing Ukraine to accept what they see as an olive branch mirage. President Joe Biden speculated Putin was looking for some “oxygen” amid heavy Russian losses. State Department spokesman Ned Price warned Russian troops might use a pause “to rest, to refit, to regroup, and ultimately to re-attack.” German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock noted there’s nothing from Moscow to signal that a Christmas ceasefire might make way for lasting peace: “Apparently [Putin] wants to continue the war after a short break.”

Other analysts have concluded the audience for the move may not be the Ukrainians or the international community, but the Russian people. “It helps [Putin] to reclaim some of the information narrative, to show some level of humanity,” Raphael Cohen, director of the RAND Corporation’s Strategy and Doctrine Program, told The Dispatch. “A nod to the Russian Orthodox church may also help him politically at home.” It’s hard to judge accurately how Russians are responding, but at least some military analysts in Russia aren’t pleased. “We, Russian soldiers and volunteers, don’t want any compromises,” military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky wrote on Telegram. “We want to kill every person dressed in the uniform of the enemy army.”

Ukraine has had some successes on the battlefield recently, including a major New Year’s Day missile strike on housing for hundreds of Russian troops near an ammunition depot in Donetsk Oblast. Blaming U.S.-supplied HIMARS systems, Russian officials have acknowledged 89 deaths—one of the deadliest single confirmed attacks of the war—though Ukraine’s military believes even that figure is an undercount by about 300 deaths. Though Russia’s Ministry of Defense said soldiers using their cell phones in violation of protocol allowed Ukraine to pinpoint their location, Russian military bloggers have criticized central command for ignoring its own errors—packing troops together near an ammunition depot within striking range of Ukraine’s artillery—in favor of blaming recruits.

But despite the successful strike, Ukrainian forces remain in a precarious position. Russian troops now primarily occupy well-defended positions with shorter supply lines to Russia, and Ukraine hasn’t gained much ground in recent weeks. “Right now, short of Russians making a mistake like they did with the troops, the Ukrainians aren’t going to be able to turn this war dramatically in their favor,” Clark said. “At this point, you’re looking at a likely stalemate unless something changes.”

To move forward, Clark said, Ukraine needs longer-range artillery—which the West has thus far withheld, leery of strikes on Russian soil escalating the conflict—and armored vehicles to protect moving troops. Supplied with another $45 billion for Ukraine aid in last month’s omnibus funding bill, the Biden administration is expected to announce a $2.85 billion package for Ukraine later today including 50 Bradleys, armored personnel carriers designed to safely carry soldiers forward to fight. Bradleys aren’t a battle tank, but they’ve earned the nickname “tank killers” for their ability to fire anti-tank missiles. And although the Pentagon is planning to phase them out, they’ve played a major role in previous U.S. military engagements. 

The arms transfer will reportedly also include Humvees, mine-resistant vehicles, and ammunition. Last month’s $1.85 billion aid package included a Patriot surface-to-air missile battery—a long-range air defense system which will help fill the gaps in Ukraine’s air defense—and Germany announced Thursday it will send another Patriot system. Germany and France are also sending armored personnel carriers.

How effective the weapons prove depends, as ever, on Ukrainians’ ability to operate and maintain them effectively and on sufficient ammunition supply. But, Cohen noted, the U.S.’s decision to send marquee equipment like the Bradley and Patriot is clear evidence of its ongoing commitment to support Ukraine. “The importance of the system is only partially for the capability that it provides,” he said. “It’s also for the signal it sends.”

Worth Your Time

  • If you’ve tuned into any of the House drama the past few days, odds are you’ve become familiar with Cheryl Johnson. “Deploying only her own custom gavel and gently chiding words, Johnson has guided the House through multiple rounds of voting on live TV, pushing back when members of both parties get off topic or step out of line,” Ryan Teague Beckwith and Zach Cohen report for Bloomberg. “The [clerk’s] typical duties are the mundane but essential work of the House: preparing and delivering messages to the Senate, handling communications with the White House and certifying the passage of bills. But the clerk occasionally is thrust into the spotlight. Along with the House Sergeant at Arms, Johnson twice was charged with hand-delivering articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate. And the clerk is nominally in charge of the House when it convenes for the first time. Normally, that’s measured in minutes, with the clerk using a special 13-inch lacquered maple gavel taken out of storage just for that day until she hands over duties to the new speaker.”
  • GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler left Congress this week after representing Washington’s 3rd congressional district for six terms, but she doesn’t think her days of public service—or membership in a different Republican Party—are behind her. “Herrera Beutler at various times in our conversation expressed an optimism about the future of Republican politics that seemed unmoored from the fact that her party’s base had rejected her,” Elaina Plott Calabro writes in The Atlantic of the lawmaker who lost her primary after voting to impeach former President Donald Trump. “In criticizing both Republican and Democratic lawmakers she called ‘members in tweet only,’ she said she often wondered what their constituents think ‘when they don’t get anything done—like when they can’t help a local hospital with a permit, or when Grandma can’t get her spouse’s disability payment from the VA.’ ‘I don’t know if they just speechify when they go home,’ she said, ‘but I know that the American people are going to get tired of that. It’s just a question of when, and under what circumstance.’”
  • For Commonweal Magazine, Eve Tushnet pens an ode to the humble city bus. “Nobody loves the bus because nobody chooses the bus, not if they have other options,” she writes. “The bus rattles and lurches. The bus is cheap and so the bus is crowded, and the bus is probably late. (Amtrak is also probably late, but not cheap.) The seats are small. On an intercity bus there’s no café car, and there sure isn’t any quiet car. The bus isn’t a respite. It takes everything about your life that you wouldn’t have chosen and crams it right into your lap. And this is how the bus brings people together. When I interviewed the urbanist writer Addison Del Mastro for an article in America magazine, he speculated that perhaps ‘what we think of as good urbanism is just an accident of having been poor.’ When we have a choice, people usually choose privacy, control, and comfort—and then we’re shocked when we wind up lonely. We put up ‘privacy fences,’ and then complain about how nobody knows their neighbors anymore. But communal bonds have always been tightened by necessity.”

Something Interesting

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Toeing the Company Line

  • When God closes a David, he opens a David. Although we’re incredibly bummed to say farewell to David French at the end of the month, we’re thrilled to announce David Drucker will be joining us as a senior writer in a couple of weeks. He comes to us after nearly a decade at the Washington Examiner, and is the author of In Trump’s Shadow: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP. We can’t wait for him to hit the ground running, bolstering our political coverage as we continue to gear up for what will be one of the craziest election cycles in recent memory. You can follow him on Twitter here, and read some of his recent work here. Please give David a warm Dispatch welcome in the comments below!
  • Sean Hannity is frustrated that Republican politics has become a “game show,” and Nick can barely contain his schadenfreude. “The current leader of the party was literally a game-show host before entering politics,” he writes in Thursday’s Boiling Frogs, “yet [he] was eagerly endorsed for president in 2016 by his good friend … Sean Hannity.”
  • Congress is back, and so is The Current! In this week’s edition (🔒), Klon breaks down the new select committee on China and what it hopes to accomplish. “The select committee is sorely needed,” he writes. “Confronting an increasingly powerful and belligerent Beijing cuts across so many existing committee jurisdictions.”
  • On yesterday’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, and Jonah break down Kevin McCarthy’s continued twisting in the wind, discuss President Biden’s 2024 prospects, speculate on contenders for Michigan’s newly vacant Senate seat, and despair over the online right’s grotesque response to Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.
  • On the site today, Harvest and Price report on McCarthy’s eleventh hour concessions to secure the speakership, Kevin delves into the first major climate racketeering case, and Princeton University Professor Keith E. Whittington examines what an art history professor’s recent termination reveals about the state of academic freedom in American universities.

Let Us Know

Is there any reason to believe Vladimir Putin’s ceasefire has anything to do with celebrating orthodox Christmas? Is Ukraine right to ignore him?

Correction, January 6, 2023: This newsletter was updated to correct the spelling of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s name.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.