When a missile slammed into a Polish village Tuesday, killing two farmers, it brought Russia’s war on Ukraine directly to the territory of a NATO ally. The immediate uncertainties included media speculation, and an assertion by Ukraine’s government, that Russia had struck Poland, risking a direct NATO response and an expansion of the war. That immediate threat eased as evidence grew that a Ukrainian air defense missile had strayed — but the incident illustrated that the dangers of an escalated war are real. The only true remedy for this threat is for Russia to stop waging war against Ukraine.
After the missile explosion, Polish President Andrzej Duda reported it was a Russian-made rocket, but in a war between post-Soviet countries whose munitions share a Soviet heritage, that fact clarified little. Duda noted it was unclear who had fired the missile. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, asserted it was a Russian attack; the Russians denied the claims.
The missile strike risked deadly consequences beyond the tragic deaths in the farming village of Przewodów. Poland is a member of NATO, covered by the alliance’s treaty, which says of its members, “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Thus a Russian attack would confront NATO with the decision whether to defend its ally or undermine confidence in the alliance. In short, the risk of a potentially disastrous expansion of the war was very real.
On Wednesday, it became increasingly clear that this was likely not a Russian attack that required a NATO response. Meeting with other NATO leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, President Joe Biden said initial indications were that it was not a Russian missile and that Russia had not fired it. Duda and others reported it was probably Ukraine’s missile, fired in defense against a Russian rocket barrage against that country.
Ukraine has a right and a responsibility to defend its citizens. If the missile that landed in Poland was in fact a Ukrainian-launched missile, that makes Russia no less responsible for the deaths of the two Polish farmers. Without the Russian attacks there would be no need for a Ukrainian defense. Ukraine, by defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity, is in essence defending the post-World War II global order based upon respect for borders and the peaceful resolution of interstate conflicts.
Crisis Averted, But Risks Remain
NATO appears to accept Duda’s explanation and the Russian denials of an attack. The incident, however, reveals starkly how this war threatens populations beyond Ukraine. One stray — or intentional — missile strike could risk a Europe-wide war. (The danger to 44 million Ukrainians has been agonizingly clear for months: tens of thousands of civilians killed, wounded or subjected to torture. Russia’s methodical destruction of critical civilian infrastructure, one of a series of evident Russian crimes in the war, threatens even greater suffering.)
Russia’s nine-month war on Ukraine has included repeated threats of what specialists call “vertical escalation” — to greater levels of violence. Most alarming have been threats of nuclear destruction, such as the risk of an accident or sabotage from Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials threatened in September that Moscow could use nuclear weapons — and accused Ukraine of preparing to use a radioactive “dirty bomb.” The U.S. government described that allegation as a provocation and bluntly warned Russia that any nuclear weapons use would be a “serious mistake.”
The sudden missile explosion in a Polish farming village is the latest of several incidents that underscore the enduring risk of a “horizontal escalation” — an expansion of this war to other countries:
- In June, Russia threatened Lithuania, a NATO member, with unspecified actions that would have “a serious negative impact” on its people after Lithuania applied European Union sanctions against cargo shipments headed to Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad. Days later, Lithuania’s government underwent a series of bomb threats and cyberattacks that it blamed on Russia.
- Missile debris rained into a village in Moldova in October after Ukrainian defenses intercepted one of three missiles that Russia fired through Moldovan airspace for the second time that month, endangering civil aviation, Moldova’s government said.
- The risks to civil aviation from a war in densely traveled European airspace remain tragically underscored by Russia’s wartime destruction in 2014 of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, killing 298 passengers from 10 nations, most of the victims from the Netherlands. A Dutch court has said it will deliver a verdict today in the murder trial, in absentia, of four Russian or Russian-proxy fighters who led the plane’s shootdown by Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The European Union Air Safety Agency has warned for months of the risks to civil flights, notably over the Baltic Sea and in countries adjoining Ukraine.
Russia’s war also poses continued risks to civilian maritime safety in the Black Sea, the International Maritime Organization has warned. Three of the Black Sea’s six littoral states are NATO members.
The tragedy in Poland this week shows the world two realities that governments and policy advocates worldwide must acknowledge.
The first is how quickly the shock of a missile strike into a third country ignited fearful speculation through social and news media — and how quickly NATO member states and the alliance’s secretariat eased the immediate risks with sober, factual assessments. Effectively, the incident served as a successful test of NATO’s repeated commitments to de-escalate this conflict wherever it can. Governments and others who value the stability of international law and accepted borders — and that abhor the current risks of escalation, including the Kremlin’s nuclear threats — should note to each other and to Russia the imperative to sustain that de-escalatory approach.
The second reality is that only one remedy can fully prevent the risk of an escalated war: Russia must cease its war of aggression, defined after World War II as “the supreme international crime,” against Ukraine. The post-World War II security architecture has been based upon a rejection of 19th century ideologies that viewed war as an acceptable extension of policy. Indeed, the United Nations was established in 1945 “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” As one of the United Nations’ co-founders and a member of its Security Council, Russia has a responsibility to live up to the commitments it has made.
The United States and the rest of the world must continue to press Russia to end its aggression. That is the only way to eliminate suffering and mitigate the danger of greater conflict.