Missiles rain down on Ukraine as Putin gives combative New Year speech

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his annual New Year address to the nation at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia December 31, 2022.

As Moscow launched a fresh barrage of strikes against Ukraine on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an unusually aggressive, prerecorded address, which was broadcast as Russians in the Far East began their New Year’s celebrations.

This New Year’s message was notably different from previous years – a reflection of the new path the country has taken since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this February.

In the address – which is broadcast at midnight on Russian state TV in line with the country’s eleven different time zones – Putin said Russia was fighting in Ukraine to protect its “motherland” and called 2022 “a year of hard, necessary decisions . . . and fateful events” that had laid the foundation of Russia’s future and independence.

Set against a backdrop of Russian military servicemen and women, instead of the typical wintry vista of the Kremlin, Putin’s speech marked a significant shift in tone, combative and nationalistic, instead of festive and celebratory.

In the nine-minute message – the longest New Year’s address in Putin’s two-decade rule – he thanked the Russian army for their “strength of spirit and courage,” before launching into a tirade against the West, which he has repeatedly blamed for provoking the offensive.

“The West lied about peace, but was preparing for aggression . . . they are cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia,” Putin said. “We have never and will never allow anyone to do this to us.”

As the first footage of the speech was broadcast, dozens of missiles rained down on Kyiv and other regions in Ukraine. Several explosions were heard in Kyiv, and a Washington Post journalist saw from her apartment window what appeared to be a Ukrainian air defense rocket intercepting a Russian missile. It was unclear if the sound of the explosions were from the air defense systems, or missiles hitting targets.

“The terrorist state once again shows its cynicism. Even on New Year’s Eve, it continues to launch massive missile strikes,” Kyiv Governor Oleksiy Kuleba wrote on Telegram. Kuleba said that there were no injuries in this strike, but a number of “civilian objects were damaged by debris,” adding that “Russia fires missiles because it knows that for us it is the New Year, and for them it is the last.”

Saturday’s attack follows a massive strike two days ago, one of the largest airstrikes since the beginning of the invasion – in what is becoming an intensifying battle between Russian missile and Ukrainian air defenses, as Kyiv tries to thwart Moscow’s attempts to destroy the country’s critical infrastructure.

The attacks show that Putin has no intention of letting up his campaign to leave Ukrainians without light, heat and water this winter while Russian advances along the front line in Ukraine’s east and south have ground to a halt.

Despite Ukrainian engineers’ feverish efforts to repair the country’s energy infrastructure after each attack, every region of the country has been hit by regular power outages, as officials ration electricity to avoid overloading the electrical grid.

On Saturday, Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko confirmed that several explosions had rocked the capital, causing extensive damage and one death. Klitschko wrote on Telegram that at least 20 people had been injured, including a Japanese journalist and that 16 had been hospitalized. Washington Post reporters in Kyiv observed that more residential areas appeared to have been hit than in previous strikes.

Ukraine’s military commander in chief Valery Zaluzhny said Saturday on his official Telegram channel that Ukrainian air defenses had destroyed 12 cruise missiles, out of 20 that Russia fired by Russia from the Caspian Sea region and “land-based” locations: six within Kyiv, five in Zhytomyr and one in Khmelnytskyi regions.

In Thursday’s attack, Ukrainian officials said they had intercepted 54 out of 69 fired Russian missiles and that in Kyiv all 16 were destroyed.

Kyiv’s military administration also posted on its official Telegram channel that seven “rockets and enemy drones” had been destroyed, but it did not specify how many missiles were fired at the capital. The Washington Post could not independently verify Ukrainian authorities’ figures.

To bolster Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, the United States has delivered two of eight promised National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems – or NASAMS – while Germany provided an IRIS-T system. Washington has also pledged to supply a Patriot missile system, one of its most advanced, though it is unclear when it will be able to be deployed in Ukraine.

Earlier on Saturday, however, several Russian officials gave their own optimistic New Year’s statements, despite major battlefield losses that have shaped the recent stages of the war. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that in the final minutes of the year Russian soldiers were continuing to “heroically defend their Fatherland.”

In his own New Year’s address Saturday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the country’s air defense forces and soldiers fighting on the front lines, and said that Saturday’s attack was not “the end of the year” but “the summary of the fate of Russia itself.”

“This war that you are waging, Russia, it is not with NATO, as your propagandists lie. It is not for historical reasons,” Zelensky said. “Your leader wants to show that he has the military behind him and that he is in front. But he is just hiding. He hides behind the military, behind missiles, behind the walls of his residences and palaces.”

“He hides behind you and burns your country and your future. No one will ever forgive you for this terror . . . Ukraine will never forgive.”