The impact of a single missile

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EXPERT PERSPECTIVE An explosion last week, in the eastern Polish village of Przewodow, killed two people and raised concerns about how quickly the war in Ukraine could escalate into a global conflict.
The Cipher Brief put together a tic-toc of what happened, telling the story of how a single missile brought into sharp focus the risks that are really at play in Ukraine.

BACKGROUND

  • Polish radio ZET reported that two stray missiles caused the explosion.
  • The Associated Press quoted a senior US intelligence official as saying that Russian missiles had entered Poland.
  • The Pentagon initially said it could not confirm reports that Russian missiles had landed on Polish territory.
  • Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the reports, calling the allegations “a deliberate provocation to escalate the situation”. It added that Russia did not hit any targets near the Ukrainian-Polish border and that the debris found at the site of the blast had “nothing to do with Russian weapons”.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later said, without providing evidence, that Russian missiles had hit Poland. He called the attack on “the territory of our friendly country” an “attack on collective security” and said it represented a “significant escalation” in the conflict with Russia.
  • In response to the blasts, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Marawiecki held an emergency meeting of the Security Council. The Polish government also increased military preparedness.
  • Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke to President Joe Biden about the blasts. The White House said Biden reiterated to Duda that the U.S. has a “rock-solid commitment to NATO.”
  • Duda also discussed the incident with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said it was important to get all the facts behind the causes of the explosion.
  • A Polish government spokesman said Poland is considering whether it will call NATO for talks under Article 4, which says an alliance member can call for talks when it feels its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is at risk.

“If this was an accident, the instinct in Warsaw and Washington will be caution and restraint, with Article 4 discussions signaling the Russians not to screw it up again,” Cipher Brief Expert and former CIA Acting Director John McLaughlin told me. U.S.

John McLaughlinFormer Acting Director of the CIA

“If this was a deliberate provocation, and we will almost certainly know soon, the Alliance will be provoked and will have to respond in some way. The default impulse will probably be to keep NATO and Russia from getting into each other’s hair. But we could relax some of the warnings we gave the Ukrainians about not hitting certain Russian targets or other red lines.

The incident raised alarm and called for the defense of NATO territory in Central and Eastern Europe, raising the question of how soon NATO would be ready to launch a response and what that response might look like .

  • Latvia appeared to explicitly accuse Russia of causing the explosions. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks tweeted: “The criminal Russian regime fired missiles that not only targeted Ukrainian citizens, but also landed on NATO territory in Poland.”
  • Estonia expressed its solidarity with Poland and its willingness to “defend every inch of NATO territory,” according to a tweet from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, Estonia did not explicitly blame Russia for the blasts.
  • Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also expressed solidarity with Poland, calling for “defending every inch of NATO territory,” according to a tweet. He said “the cause of the explosions is not yet known”, but added that they occurred when Russia launched missile strikes in Ukraine.
  • Hungary called a meeting of the defense council to discuss the explosions and the disruption of oil flows from the Druzhba pipeline.

“We don’t know enough about the attack yet,” warned Cipher Brief Expert and former Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis (retired).

Admiral James Stavridis (retired)Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO

“But assuming it was an errant missile from Russia, this gives strong motivation to at least strengthen air defenses along the NATO-Ukraine border. It could also lead to NATO supplying MIG-29 aircraft from Poland to the Ukrainians, with US backing up with F-16s. And it could lead to serious discussion about establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine manned by NATO fighters.”

The morning after

Poland’s foreign ministry released a statement on Wednesday saying a Russian-made missile caused an explosion in eastern Poland that killed two people. The ministry said it had summoned the Russian ambassador and “demanded immediate detailed explanations” for the blasts.

  • Polish President Andrzej Duda then appeared to distance himself from a stubborn condemnation of Russia, saying that there is no conclusive evidence to prove who fired the missiles and that investigations are ongoing. He added that the explosion appeared to be a “one off” incident. He also said it is likely that Poland will request consultations under Article 4 at a scheduled meeting of the North Atlantic Council on Wednesday.
  • President Joe Biden called an emergency meeting of NATO and G7 leaders gathered in Bali for a G20 summit to discuss the missile blast. He told reporters that according to “preliminary information”, he thinks it is “unlikely” that the missile was fired from Russia because of its trajectory, but said he would not draw any conclusions until the Polish investigation is completed.
  • Three US officials tell The Associated Press preliminary findings suggest the missile that landed in Poland was fired by Ukrainian forces in an attempt to intercept an incoming Russian missile.
  • Polish President Andrzej Duda says the explosion was “very likely” an “accidental accident” caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile, rather than a “deliberate attack”. He added that the missile was “most likely” Russian-made, but that there is currently no evidence that Russian forces fired it.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Duda’s conclusion, though he stressed that “this is not Ukraine’s fault” and that “Russia bears the ultimate responsibility in continuing its illegal war against Ukraine.”

Sir Alex YoungerFormer Chief, MI6

“It is, literally, a warning shot about the possibility of escalation,” Cipher Brief Expert and former head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6 Sir Alex Younger, told us. “But I am convinced that Putin understands that deliberate escalation is not in his interest. I would add that even if it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, the blame is still firmly on Russia.”

What have we learned?

Among other things, we learned how dangerously close a single missile can get to escalate an already tense situation into a higher level of global conflict. We learned how quickly information is shared and we saw how NATO countries at least thought about reacting, if the missile had indeed been fired by Russia. While the lessons from this one incident are worth noting, so is the bigger picture.

“In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the West’s response was inadequate. Russia controls 20% of the nation of Georgia,” Cipher Brief Expert and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Phil Breedlove (retired) told us.

General Phil Breedlove (retired)Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO

“The Western world rewarded Russia’s bad behavior. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and took 11 or 12% of Ukrainian territory. Moscow threatened to huff and puff and blow our house down with World War III or their nuclear weapons. Once again, the West capitulated and let them hold onto much of Ukraine. For the second time, we rewarded bad behavior. It will not surprise us that we are now back for the third time. Russia has taken over a large part of Ukraine again. And when the West begins to respond, Russia has huffed and puffed and threatened to blow our house down with World War III and nuclear weapons. And they fully expect us to capitulate for the third time. We in the West are on the verge of deciding, are we going to reward bad behavior for the third time? The West and the Western world have a decision to make. Mr. Putin gasps and he puffs and he threatens to blow our house down and we have to decide how to respond. Here’s what I know for sure: If we capitulate and allow Russia to hold on to even more Ukrainian territory, we’ll be back here again in 2025 and 2028 and 2031 and 2033. It’s time for us to step up to put.”

Cipher Letter Writer and researcher Ethan Masucol contributed to this piece

Learn more expert-driven insights, perspectives, and analysis on national security in The Cipher Brief





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