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Poland missile explosion highlights risk of escalation in the war in Ukraine

Nato leaders have urged calm while the origin of the missile is investigated.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: On 16 November, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda said there was no evidence that the projectile had been fired by Russia. Instead, he said it was “highly probable” that it was an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union that had been fired by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defences. Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said that the ultimate responsibility still lay with Russia as it continued its illegal war against Ukraine.

In the hours since a missile killed two people in Poland, prompting alarm around the world, the situation has become less, not more, clear.

Poland’s foreign ministry reported the explosion of the Russian-made missile near the border with Ukraine yesterday, on Tuesday 15 November. The president, Andrzej Duda, clarified today: “We do not have conclusive evidence at this time of who launched the missile.” (He conceded, however, that it was most likely made in Russia.) The Polish government has raised the combat readiness level of some military units in response to the incident, which is understood to have caused an explosion at a grain-drying facility in the village of Przewodów.

Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, urged citizens to remain calm and “exercise restraint and caution” as the government determined who had fired the missile. Complicating the initial suspicions was a comment from Joe Biden, the US president, who is in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit, that his administration considered it “unlikely”, based on the missile’s trajectory, that it was fired from Russia, “but we’ll see”. An Associated Press report said that US officials believed that the missile could have been fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian rocket, and then inadvertently crossed the border.

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Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, however, has categorically denied this. The strike took place during a wave of attacks against power stations and energy infrastructure across Ukraine. It was one of the heaviest Russian aerial bombardments to date, leading to outages so severe that they have also affected Moldova, another of Ukraine’s neighbours. In a statement posted on the messaging platform Telegram, the Russian defence ministry denied attacking any targets near the Polish border.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, chaired an emergency meeting of Nato ambassadors in Brussels this morning to discuss the incident. If Russia was found to have deliberately targeted Poland, a Nato member, it would represent a significant escalation of the war in Ukraine. According to the principle of collective defence, enshrined in Article 5 of the founding treaty, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. However, it’s far from clear whether the incident was indeed an attack on Poland and there is no suggestion that Poland plans to trigger Article 5. Instead, Polish officials have said that they are considering triggering Article 4, which requires Nato members to meet and reaffirm their commitment to collective defence.

Meanwhile, European leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, who are also at the G20 summit in Bali, met to discuss the situation. In a joint statement Nato and G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitment to supporting Ukraine and vowed “to remain in close touch to determine appropriate next steps as the investigation proceeds”. Biden said that he had spoken to Duda to offer his condolences.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, had addressed the G20 summit by video link in the hours before the attack on Tuesday. He called for urgent efforts to stop the Russian invasion and pointedly referred to the leaders of the “G19” so as to exclude Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is attending the meeting. “We must act,” Zelensky said in a video message after the strike, which he called a “very significant escalation” and an “attack on collective security”. Kuleba called for Ukraine to be provided with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, and air defence systems, in response.

This is unlikely, even as world leaders and Nato members discuss how they can help bring an end to the war – whether it be imposing more pressure on Russia to end the conflict or by providing more aid to Ukraine. What is clear, however, is that the risk of escalation – whether by accident or design – is still a present threat in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

[See also: What does the Poland missile explosion mean for Nato and Article 5?]  

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