Will Poland missile change the course of Ukraine war?

Deadly missile strike on Polish village stokes fears of a Nato escalation

G20 leaders discussed the Polish missile strike which took place as they convened in Bali, Indonesia
G20 leaders discuss the Polish missile strike, which took place as they convened in Bali, Indonesia
(Image credit: Hebestreit/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

An explosion that killed two people in Poland is likely to have been caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile fired in response to a Russian attack, according to Nato.

​The missile strike last night on the village of Przewodow, about four miles west of the Ukrainian border, prompted fears of an escalation in the conflict. Russia denied responsibility, saying it had not targeted any Ukrainian territory near the border with Poland.

The strike marked “the first time a Nato country has been directly hit during the almost nine-month conflict”, said CNN.

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Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today that an investigation was under way. “We have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack and we have no indication that Russia is preparing offensive military actions against Nato,” he said. Preliminary analysis suggested the incident “was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks”.

“But let me be clear,” added Stoltenberg, “this is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

What did the papers say?

Poland is to lead an investigation into the strike to determine who fired the missile and from where. The Polish defence ministry described it as “Russian made” – but both Russia and Ukraine have deployed Russian-made munitions throughout the conflict.

“Whatever the outcome of the Polish-led investigation”, the incident has “reinforced longstanding concerns related to the risk of battlefield miscalculation triggering Nato-Russian conflict”, said CNN.

That is because Poland has been a member of the Nato alliance since 1996. If the strike was established to be a deliberate, hostile attack on the Ukraine-bordering nation, it could trigger a military response from Nato under Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty, which considers an attack on one member an attack on all.

But two Nato officials told the Financial Times that the situation had provoked concern but not panic within the alliance. “It’s often said that an attack on a Nato ally could trigger an Article 5 response, but Nato officials really stress that Article 5 is a conversation, not a machine,” Patrick Tucker, an editor at Defense One, told The Telegraph. “An Article 5 Response can take all sorts of forms. It’s not a WWIII button.”

Even if the missile was determined to have been fired by Russia, it seems likely it would fall short of the “armed attack” necessary to trigger Article 5.

“‘Deliberate armed attack’ is a real thing,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control for International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Two misfired cruise or ballistic missiles ain’t it.”

What next?

According to Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland had been considering whether to launch consultations with Nato allies under Article 4 of its treaty. According to the treaty, Article 4 is the formal mechanism under which Nato countries “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

However, Stoltenberg has since confirmed that there has been no call for an Article 4 meeting.

Whatever the results of the investigation into the missile’s origin, the incident “underscores that while containing the war to Ukrainian land is a policy priority for most of the Nato alliance, it is a national security imperative for those on the country’s western border, for whom spillover is inseparable from direct involvement”, said the FT’s Henry Foy.

The incident certainly “raised tensions at a summit in Bali of leaders of the Group of 20 nations, a gathering focused largely on the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine”, said The Washington Post.

Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, predicted the incident would “galvanise” Ukraine’s allies, said the paper.

“The question now is, how do we, with the Ukrainians, stop Russian air and missile attacks throughout Ukraine and if they spill over to Nato territory?” he said. “The answer will be much more robust air and missile support.”

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