The United States is on high alert after a Russian missile strike in Poland killed two people, an incident that could signal a major turning point for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
The explosion and deaths on Polish land mark the realization of a long-held concern among NATO members: that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine would spill beyond its borders and risk widening the conflict by triggering Article 5, the mutual defense pact of member states.
Poland, which quickly began an investigation into exactly what happened, was considering invoking Article 4, which allows any NATO member to call a discussion of the council, and the nation is expected to convene a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.
The deaths also set off a flurry of calls and meetings between top Western officials, with President Biden, on travel in Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 Heads of State and Government Summit, speaking with Polish President Andrzej Duda early Wednesday morning local time.
In a readout on the call, the White House said Biden “offered full U.S support for and assistance with Poland’s investigation” and “reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to NATO.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Polish counterpart, Jacek Siewiera, chief of the National Security Bureau of Poland, as the Polish National Security Council convened in the wake of the strike.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with his Polish counterpart Tuesday.
Many questions were still unanswered as of Tuesday evening, among them whether the Russian missile was intended to cross into Poland or was meant for Ukrainian territory and missed its mark.
The explosions occurred in the village of Przewodów, about four miles north of the Ukrainian border, after the Russian-made armament fell at about 3:40 p.m. local time, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lukasz Jasina said in a statement late Tuesday.
It was not clear where the projectile came from, though the Polish explosion happened the same day Russia began a barrage of missile strikes across Ukraine following a retreat from the key city of Kherson.
The Polish president in a Tuesday address said his country does not know who fired the missile at the center of the incident but that it was “most likely produced in Russia.”
“We are working calmly and in a very calm manner,” Duda said from Warsaw, adding that U.S. experts are being sent to Poland to investigate the explosion site alongside Polish experts.
Poland’s foreign minister has also summoned the Russian ambassador and “demanded immediate detailed explanations” as to how the Russian-made missile fell within Poland’s borders, Jasina said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry appeared to deny any involvement when it said no missile strikes were made on targets near the Ukrainian-Polish border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday called the incident a “really significant escalation” of the war between Kyiv and Moscow.
“Hitting NATO territory with missiles. … This is a Russian missile attack on collective security! This is a really significant escalation. Action is needed,” Zelensky said in a video address.
It’s not the first time weapons have strayed across borders during the war, as Russian military planes violated Swedish airspace several times this spring and Finnish airspace in August.
A Soviet-era drone armed with a bomb also crashed in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb in March after flying from Ukraine into Romanian and Hungarian airspace. A Russian-made reconnaissance drone crashed in Romania the same month.
But the deadly nature of Tuesday’s explosions may mean an escalation in the conflict, with fears confirmed that the Ukraine-Russia war would eventually spread into NATO countries the longer it drags on.
“This is something we’ve always been afraid of, that there would be spillover into a NATO ally and that puts NATO on the spot,” Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, told The Hill. He stressed that all the facts have yet to come to light.
“There’s a lot of options out there that are short of World War III, that are short of Article 5, and that can be executed by not just NATO, but maybe it’s done by Poland itself,” he said.
Ukraine instead appears to lean toward the route of Article 4, where any member of the alliance can bring an issue of concern to the table for discussion with the North Atlantic Council. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, called Tuesday afternoon for a NATO summit with Ukraine’s participation to discuss next steps.
“Collective response to Russian actions must be tough and principled,” he wrote, reiterating calls for Western fighter jets and air defense systems to intercept Russian missiles.
“Today, protecting Ukraine’s skies means protecting NATO,” he added.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland now with the Atlantic Council, said Article 4 was the most logical step for the situation.
“Whether it’s an Article 5, whether it was a deliberate attack, we can’t say. But it’s certainly an Article 4 contingency, and there should be discussions about this,” Fried told The Hill.
The move would certainly be welcomed by U.S. officials, who are none too eager to see the conflict escalate and have urged caution in their responses until more details emerge.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said earlier Tuesday that American officials were concerned about the episode but still gathering information.
“And once we have determined what the information is, then the Security Council will determine whether it’s needed to call a meeting,” she said at a Washington Post event.
An accidental missile strike in Poland or a situation where Russian missiles were shot down by Ukraine and the debris fell into Polish territory would not risk a severe reaction, experts told The Hill. But if it is determined that Russia intentionally struck Polish territory, Warsaw and NATO members may be forced to respond.
“Whether it’s NATO, Poland or the U.S., we have to figure out what’s the prudent next step to ensure that Poland is protected … but also to deter Russian aggression if it was done with intent,” Townsend said.
He stressed, however, that “no one’s going to act precipitously. It’s a matter of trying to get the facts and then deciding what to do.”
Biden, meanwhile, has repeatedly promised that in an instance in which a NATO member was attacked, the U.S. government would uphold Article 5, the clause that outlines that allies will consider an attack on one an attack on all.
He has also promised that the U.S “will defend every inch of NATO territory” and that its commitment to Article 5 is “ironclad.”
Some U.S. lawmakers have demanded a response from Russia, including Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who said on CNN that if the missile was indeed an accident, “they better say it and say it quickly.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran, said she was worried by waiting for more information from the Department of Defense.
“Before I make any sort of bombastic statements, I just need to understand what happened. Because this is serious. I mean, if it [was] intentional, it’s very serious,” she said.
Fried said what’s important at the moment is a rapid response “in terms of letting the Poles and other vulnerable countries like the Baltics know we have their back.”
Source: The Hill