1. Bloody battles continue in Ukraine's 'meat grinder' east
Ukrainian and Russian troops battled in eastern regions on Thursday as Kyiv tried to push back occupying forces.
The Ukrainian military said the Russians were focused on an offensive in the Bakhmut sector of the Donetsk region, but their attacks in the Avdiivka and Kupiansk sectors were unsuccessful.
The governor of the neighbouring Luhansk region said Kyiv troops were recapturing areas there "step-by-step" but cautioned it was "not happening fast".
Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbas region, Ukraine's industrial heartland, parts of which were seized by Russian-backed proxies in 2014.
Russia unilaterally declared Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as part of its territory in September after sham referendums condemned by Ukraine and the West. Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions.
Bakhmut, which is now largely in ruins after months of battering by Russian artillery, is important because the Kremlin wants a relatively quick win to show to its public after a series of setbacks in the war.
It is located on a supply line between Donetsk and Luhansk. Gaining control of Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of 70,000-80,000 that has shrunk to close to 10,000, could give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities -- Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Fighting has been particularly tough there, with commanders on both sides describing it as a "meat grinder".
Ukraine's military said it estimated 800 Russian soldiers were killed in the past day, mostly in fighting in Donetsk. The figure -- which would signify a huge loss of life for a single day -- could not be independently confirmed.
The Luhansk governor, Serhiy Haidai, said he expected fighting to intensify across the eastern front as temperatures drop further and the ground freezes.
"Then the opportunity to use heavy equipment will open up," he said.
2. France donates light tanks, but Zelenskyy wants more
In his evening video address on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Western allies to provide his army with tanks and heavy weapons to combat the Russian forces.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday his government would send light AMX-10 RC armoured combat vehicles to help its war effort.
Zelenskyy thanked Macron but said: "There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western tanks."
The Kyiv government has repeatedly asked Western allies for heavier fighting vehicles such as the Abrams and German-made Leopard tanks.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Washington was considering sending lighter Bradley fighting vehicles to Ukraine. The Bradley has a powerful gun and has been a US Army staple to carry troops since the mid-1980s.
The United States is preparing another package of weapons, which could be announced in the coming days on top of about $21.3 billion (€20.2bn) in security assistance so far to Ukraine.
The United States has increased the capability of the weapons it has sent.
During a visit by Zelenskyy to Washington last month, the US pledged to send the Patriot missile system to repel Russian missile and drone attacks.
3. 'Putin's Chef' and Wagner founder grants freedom to former convicts who fought in Ukraine
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia's most notorious mercenary group, bade farewell on Thursday to former convicts who had served out their contracts in Ukraine and urged them to avoid the temptation to kill when back in civilian life.
Wagner Group, originally staffed by battle-hardened veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, as well as in Ukraine.
After President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on 24 February, Prigozhin emerged from the shadows and recruited thousands of men from prisons, offering them the chance of freedom in return for serving in some of the most dangerous battles in Ukraine.
Prigozhin -- who has been sanctioned by Western countries for his role in Wagner -- was shown in footage supplied by state news agency RIA Novosti shaking hands with the first group of convicts who had gained their freedom after serving for six months.
"Don't booze too much, don't take drugs, don't rape women -- only for love or for money, as they say," Prigozhin was shown saying to the former convicts, who laughed. "The police should treat you with respect."
"You have learned a great deal -- first of all: how to kill the enemy," Prigozhin told them on a bus. "I really don't want you to practise that skill on (Russian) territory... If you want to kill the enemy again, you return."
The former prisoners, some dressed in black and waving their heavily tattooed hands, were shown being flown out of an undisclosed location that RIA said was in Russia's southern Krasnodar region. One appeared to be carrying a pet of some kind.
The former convicts who survived were awarded medals for bravery, Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed "Putin's Chef" for his sprawling catering businesses, is the most powerful of a group of Putin allies who now control what are essentially private armies that recruit top military officers, former spies and convicts.
Wagner's units have been accused of involvement in war crimes and other crimes against humanity in a number of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.
4. Ukraine experienced heaviest economic downfall since 1991 independence
Ukraine suffered its sharpest economic decline in over 30 years in 2022 because of the war with Russia, but said foreign aid and the "unbreakable spirit" of its people helped prevent an even worse scenario.
Preliminary economy ministry data on Thursday showed a 30.4% drop in gross domestic product last year. Economic analysts said risks and uncertainty remain high, especially if Russia continues to attack critical infrastructure in Ukraine.
Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko described the decline in GDP as the biggest in any year since Ukraine won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but said the fall was smaller than expected.
"In 2022, the Ukrainian economy suffered its largest losses and damages in the entire history of independence, inflicted on it by the Russian Federation," Svyrydenko, who is also first deputy prime minister, said in a statement.
"The successes of Ukraine's defence forces on the front lines, the coordinated work of the government and businesses, the unbreakable spirit of the population and the speed of rebuilding damaged critical infrastructure units, and also systemic financial support from international donors have allowed us to keep up the economic front and continue our movement towards victory."
The war has caused widespread death and destruction, uprooted millions of Ukrainians, disrupted agriculture, limited access to the Black Sea ports that are vital for grain and metals exports, and driven up defence spending.
Ukraine's economy is export-led, but those have slumped since Russia's full-scale invasion on 24 February.
The economy ministry said this week that exports had fallen 35% compared with 2021, and physical volumes fell by 38.4% this year.
Ukraine is a major global grain producer and exporter. Grain exports have fallen sharply since the invasion, with some seaports blocked by Russia, but again accounted for the bulk of the country's exports in 2022.
5. Ukraine must accept 'new territorial realities' before any peace deal is made, Putin tells Erdogan
President Vladimir Putin told Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday that Russia was open to dialogue over Ukraine but that Kyiv would have to accept the loss of territories claimed by Russia, the Kremlin said.
"Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Russia's openness to a serious dialogue, provided that the Kiev authorities fulfill the well–known and repeatedly voiced requirements and take into account the new territorial realities," the Kremlin said.
Putin also "acknowledged the destructive role of the West, pumping weapons into Kyiv, providing information and guidance," the Kremlin said.
The presidents also discussed a number of energy issues, including the creation of a gas hub in Turkey and the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, Kremlin said.
Erdogan and the Russian president have spoken repeatedly since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February.
Turkey acted as a mediator alongside the United Nations to set up a deal allowing grain exports from Ukrainian ports.
According to the Kremlin, Putin once again told Erdogan that all the barriers to Russian exports of food and fertilisers, which Russia sees as part of the grain deal, should be lifted.
6. Moscow's Orthodox patriarch calls for Christmas truce, Putin says yes
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a one-and-a-half-day ceasefire in Ukraine to mark Orthodox Christmas.
Putin has instructed the Russian Defence Ministry to stop all hostilities from midday on Friday until Sunday night, according to a statement from the Kremlin released on Thursday.
"Proceeding from the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a ceasefire and allow them to attend services on Christmas Eve as well as on Christmas Day," Putin said.
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak tweeted back that Russia "must leave the occupied territories - only then will it have a 'temporary truce'. Keep hypocrisy to yourself."
Earlier on Thursday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for both sides of the war in Ukraine to observe a Christmas truce -- a step dismissed by Kyiv as a cynical trap.
Most Orthodox Christians, including those living in Russia and Ukraine, celebrate Christmas on 7 January.
"I, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, appeal to all the parties involved in the internecine conflict to cease fire and establish a Christmas truce from (noon local time) on 6 January until (midnight) on 7 January so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day," he said.
Podolyak also cast the Russian Orthodox Church's Kirill as a "war propagandist" that had incited the "mass murder" of Ukrainians and the militarisation of Russia.
"The statement of the Russian Orthodox Church about the 'Christmas Truce' is a cynical trap and an element of propaganda," he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest of the churches in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which split with Western Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054. Today it has about 100 million followers within Russia and more outside.
But the 24 February full-scale invasion of Ukraine has divided the two biggest Slav congregations and added to a growing dispute within Slav Orthodox Christianity that goes back more than a thousand years to the very roots of Russia and Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church has backed Putin's war in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, dubbed the Tobacco Metropolitan for his alleged profiteering off of duty-free cigarettes in the 1990s, is among the war's most vocal supporters.
As many Ukrainians sought to shed Russian dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kyivan Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted autocephaly by Constantinople -- which oversees most modern Orthodox churches -- causing disagreement from Moscow, which considers it a usurper.
After Christianity came to Eastern Slavic lands in the 9th and 10th centuries, Kyiv had its own Metropolitanate, but the seat was transferred to Moscow, subordinating Ukraine to Russia's church in 1685 under Tsar Peter the Great.