A deadly missile strike on a Polish village close to the Ukrainian border has made stark the biggest fear of the war in Ukraine: that the conflict could snowball into a wider confrontation between Moscow and the US-led Nato alliance.
At 3:40pm on Tuesday, a missile struck Przewodów, close to Poland’s south-eastern border with Ukraine, killing two people whom local media said were farm workers.
This part of Poland has lived with the war since Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Its roads have ferried, in one direction, millions of refugees fleeing the conflict and, in the other, billions of dollars in western military equipment to help Ukraine fight back.
Tuesday’s blast brought the war directly to Polish territory for the first time, in a reminder of the enormous threat of escalation from the conflict — and of how dangerously close Europe is to a war between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.
In the chaotic initial aftermath of the incident, accusations flew. An Associated Press report, citing an anonymous senior US intelligence official, said that the blasts were caused by Russian missiles that had crossed into Poland, but official US channels declined to corroborate this assessment. President Joe Biden then said it was “unlikely” the missile had been fired from Russia.
Attribution is critical. If investigators conclude that the missile was fired by Russia, it would be the first time Nato territory has been struck by Russian armed forces since the invasion began. Whether deliberate or not, that would present Nato with a monumentally important decision: the US-led military alliance has a mutual defence clause that, if activated, calls on all allies to respond to such an attack.
While Ukrainian officials were also quick to suggest Moscow was to blame, Poland’s response was equivocal. Warsaw’s statement that it was summoning Russia’s ambassador in response to the “Russian-made” missile left room for multiple interpretations.
“We do not have any conclusive evidence at the moment as to who launched this missile,” Poland’s president Andrzej Duda told reporters after an emergency security meeting of the Polish government. It was, he said, “a one-off incident”.
That the explosion occurred amid a barrage of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine fuelled theories that this could have been a Moscow-fired projectile. Other observers speculated that initial evidence from the site suggested it could have also been a Ukrainian missile fired to shoot down a Russian cruise missile that had gone astray.
Russia’s defence ministry denied responsibility for the blast, claiming that the allegations it had fired the missile were a “deliberate provocation with the goal of escalating the situation”.
In a flurry of calls on Tuesday evening between Duda and western leaders including Biden, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, a key message was repeated: the allies stood by Poland but wanted more details before making any decisions.
Warsaw will probably use a meeting of Nato’s council on Wednesday to request consultations under Article 4 of the military alliance’s treaty, which can be invoked when “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.
That is separate from Nato’s Article 5 clause, which concerns mutual defence assistance in the event of an attack and a potential military response from the rest of the 30-member alliance.
Such consultations make sense regardless of the perpetrator of Tuesday evening’s explosion; Poland’s territory has been hit, its citizens have been killed and Nato must demonstrate unity — as it has been at pains to do since even before Putin’s invasion in late February.
But Nato also probably will not succumb to knee-jerk responses. Avoiding escalation has become a mantra of Nato powers, sometimes to the frustration of Kyiv.
At the same time, the US and Nato leadership have repeatedly stressed their “ironclad” commitment to defending “every single inch” of Nato territory, something that Biden repeated to Duda on Tuesday evening, according to the White House.
Tuesday night’s incident also 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.
Who fired what, when and at whom will probably become clearer as Poland, Ukraine and Russia conduct their investigations. But one thing is already stark: war between nuclear-armed Russia and Nato could only be one miscalculation away.