May 23, 2024

Russia hit Ukraine with missiles and drones hours before the leaders of the two countries used New Year’s Eve speeches to their people on Sunday to offer starkly different messages at the end of another year of brutal war.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said the Russian invasion had already demonstrated his country’s strength and resilience — and he called on Ukrainians to “make an extraordinary effort and to do more.”

“Each of us fought, worked, waited, helped, lived and hoped this year,” Mr. Zelensky said in a 20-minute video address delivered from his presidential office. “No matter how many missiles the enemy fires, no matter how many shellings and attacks,” he vowed, “we will still rise.”

A listener to the New Year’s address given by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, might be forgiven for thinking that the biggest land war in Europe since World War II was not taking place just across the border.

“I want to wish every Russian family all the best,” Mr. Putin said in a message that was just four minutes long, and delivered in a familiar setting for the Russian leader’s end-of-year address, with the nighttime Kremlin illuminated in the background. “We are one country, one big family.”

In a speech that appeared intended to send a reassuring signal of normality to the Russian people, Mr. Putin only fleetingly spoke of the Russian soldiers waging war on his behalf, calling them “our heroes” who are “on the front line of the battle for truth and justice.” And he did not mention Ukraine or the West.

The familiar staging signaled a return to business as usual — and was a striking departure from the New Year’s speech the Russian leader offered a year ago. That evening, angry, defiant and humiliated by a Russian retreat in northeast Ukraine that precipitated the Kremlin’s unpopular and chaotic military draft, Mr. Putin accused the West of “cynically using Ukraine.”

His short message on Sunday seemed to reflect his confidence in Russia’s ability to continue waging war without uprooting the lives of its citizens, given the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and the flagging support for Ukraine in the West.

Mr. Putin made no mention of the tens of thousands of Russians who died this year in the bloody battles for Ukrainian cities like Bakhmut and Avdiivka. And he invoked only obliquely his narrative about Russia’s existential conflict with the West. “There is no force that is able to divide us, force us to forget the memory and faith of our fathers, or halt our development,” he said.

A day earlier, Russia sustained what appeared to be the deadliest single strike on its soil since Mr. Putin’s forces started the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The attack on the Russian city of Belgorod left 24 people dead, Russian officials said, and wounded more than 100 others.

Russian officials blamed Ukraine for the attack, and on Saturday night they retaliated with strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, just 60 miles across the border from Belgorod. Residents there were jolted by multiple air-raid sirens overnight, as several waves of ballistic missiles and attack drones rained on the city center, injuring nearly 30 people and damaging private homes, hospitals and a hotel, according to Ukrainian officials.

“These are not military facilities, but cafes, residential buildings and offices,” Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said in a post on social media that included a video of firefighters trying to extinguish a blaze amid a pile of rubble.

Air-raid alerts wailed in many cities and towns across Ukraine on Sunday night, as local authorities warned against incoming Russian missiles and attack drones. Early on Monday, Oleh Kiper, the governor of the southern Odesa region, said on Telegram that at least one person had been killed in a Russian drone attack in the city of Odesa.

In the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk in Ukraine’s east, “heavy shelling” from Ukraine killed four people and injured at least 13, Denis Pushilin, the Russian-appointed head of the broader Donetsk region, said on Telegram early Monday.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a Sunday statement that the attacks on Kharkiv had “struck decision-making centers and military facilities,” asserting that the Kharkiv Palace Hotel, which was hit by a missile, was housing members of Ukraine’s armed forces and intelligence services. The strike left a hole several stories high in the facade.

The hotel is one of the most famous in Kharkiv, and foreign journalists have often stayed there. The attack appeared to be the latest in a series of Russian missile strikes on venues popular with reporters. This past summer, Russian missiles struck a well-known restaurant and a hotel in the eastern cities of Kramatorsk and Pokrovsk.

The weekend air assaults in Ukraine and Russia capped a week of intensified attacks by both sides on land, sea and air signaling that neither Kyiv nor Moscow intends to de-escalate the war. In recent days, Ukraine hit a Russian warship and said it had shot down five fighter jets, while Russian forces made small advances all along the front line.

“Our enemies can certainly see what our real wrath is,” Mr. Zelensky said in his New Year’s Eve speech.

On Friday, Russia hit Ukraine with a huge and deadly air assault that breached air defenses and wreaked havoc in Kyiv, the capital. The attacks killed some 40 people, wounded about 160 others and hit critical industrial and military infrastructure, as well as civilian buildings like hospitals and schools.

The attack on Belgorod came the next day.

The Ukrainian government did not comment publicly on the strike, as is its usual policy when Russian territory is hit. But an official from Ukraine’s intelligence services, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the strike had been in response to Russia’s attack on Friday, and that only military facilities had been targeted.

Russia said on Saturday that the attack on Belgorod would “not go unpunished,” and it took only a few hours for Moscow to strike back, targeting nearby Kharkiv, with what Ukrainian officials said appeared to be short-range Iskander ballistic missiles. Kharkiv is so close to the border with Russia that air-raid alarms often have no time to sound before missiles hit.

Scenes of devastation emerged in the aftermath of the Russian attack. The lobby of the Kharkiv Palace Hotel was strewed with debris from the collapsed floors, a white piano and red armchairs covered with rubble. Tables that were set for dinner were swept by a gentle wind: the hotel restaurant’s windows had all been blown out.

In a nearby street, firefighters and city workers were busy clearing the pavement of debris that had fallen from shattered facades. Shards of glass cracked under their feet.

Mr. Zelensky said that Ukraine had endured 6,000 air raid alerts this year. “Almost every night,” he said, the country “woke up to sirens and went down to the shelter to protect its children from enemy missiles and drones.”

And almost every night, he said, after they heard the “all clear” signal, Ukrainians went upstairs and looked up “into the sky” to “prove once again that Ukrainians are stronger than terror.”

Laura Boushnak contributed reporting from Kharkiv, and Vivek Shankar and Jin Yu Young from Seoul.