NATO Chief Says Ukraine Air Defense Likely Cause of Poland Explosion

Russia still to blame for incident after bombarding Ukraine with missiles, Stoltenberg says.

By , , and
An unexploded missile and a man running away from another Russian missile explosion
An unexploded missile and a man running away from another Russian missile explosion
An unexploded missile and a man running away from another Russian missile explosion is seen in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

As the Russian military fired a massive barrage of missiles at Ukrainian cities, projectiles or debris from at least one missile appeared to land in neighboring Poland, killing at least two people and marking the first time that the war in Ukraine caused casualties on NATO territory.

A preliminary investigation determined the missile that struck Poland likely came from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile that was fired to defend against a Russian cruise missile, the NATO chief said on Thursday.

“We have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “But let me be clear. This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility, as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

As the Russian military fired a massive barrage of missiles at Ukrainian cities, projectiles or debris from at least one missile appeared to land in neighboring Poland, killing at least two people and marking the first time that the war in Ukraine caused casualties on NATO territory.

A preliminary investigation determined the missile that struck Poland likely came from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile that was fired to defend against a Russian cruise missile, the NATO chief said on Thursday.

“We have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “But let me be clear. This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility, as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg stressed that the investigation is still ongoing, and NATO leaders are awaiting its final outcome. U.S. President Joe Biden backed up Stoltenberg’s assessment, saying it was “unlikely” that Russia launched the missile that struck Poland.

Initial fears that the incident was a deliberate Russian missile attack on Poland have since abated in Washington and Brussels. But it spotlights how NATO has been on a knife’s edge since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine and how even accidents on the periphery of the conflict could rapidly push NATO and Russia into a new military showdown.

Biden and other NATO and G-7 leaders on Wednesday held an emergency meeting on the incident in Indonesia, where world leaders were gathered for a G-20 summit. In Brussels, NATO’s main decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, concurrently held its own emergency meeting to discuss a unified alliance response.

Even if an errant Ukrainian missile was the likely culprit, NATO countries still rushed to Ukraine’s defense and underscored their continued support for Kyiv in its fight against Russia’s invasion. Biden asked Congress to allocate more than $37 billion in additional aid for Ukraine, a massive cash infusion that includes $21.7 billion for military and intelligence support and $14.5 billion in humanitarian aid.

Defense ministers from most NATO countries are also scheduled to meet virtually on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which coordinates Western military assistance to Kyiv.

On Tuesday, Russia launched a barrage of missile strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, including in the far western part of the country, as part of an apparent strategy to make up for stinging battlefield losses by striking Ukrainian civilian targets. The barrage came after Ukrainian forces recaptured the key port city of Kherson from retreating Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at least 85 Russian missiles struck Ukraine on Tuesday—reportedly its largest barrage yet—but that the strikes would not deter Ukraine from liberating more territory from the Russians. “We’re working, will restore everything. We will survive everything,” he said.

U.S. and European officials have described the incident in Poland as a near miss for a full NATO-Russia military confrontation. Several top alliance officials issued statements condemning Russia for launching the missile that struck Poland before retracting those statements as the results of the preliminary investigation came in.

Former U.S. officials said the alliance’s reaction was likely to be different depending on whether it is determined to have been a deliberate attack or an errant strike.

An accidental Russian strike on Polish territory could have triggered harsh condemnations, diplomatic reprisals, or the deployment of more NATO forces to the alliance’s eastern flank. An intentional Russian strike on NATO territory could trigger a harsher military response from NATO and, potentially, push the alliance to trigger its Article 5 provision, which calls for a collective response against an aggressor if any member nation is attacked.

“This development further underscores the need for communication channels between the U.S., NATO, and the Russian militaries,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense.

“Although it was likely a tragic mistake by the Ukrainians, it’s a mistake that would not have happened if it wasn’t for the unlawful and unprovoked Russian invasion of the sovereign country of Ukraine,” he added.

NATO’s collective defense clause—known as Article 5—has only been triggered once in the alliance’s 73-year history, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

“Article 5 is not automatic,” said Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy. “Even if Poland comes and says, ‘we’ve been attacked,’ it’s up to the [North Atlantic Council] to decide whether that is true or not.”

Alliance members, including the United States, have boosted their military presence on NATO’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including through eight multinational battlegroups and an increased tempo of military exercises.

In response to Russia’s full-scale invasion, the United States boosted the number of American troops in Europe to more than 100,000 for the first time in decades. Many of them are in Poland, based within miles of Russia’s strike on Tuesday.

Update, Nov. 16, 2022: This story was updated to include new details on the preliminary investigation into the incident, including comments from NATO leaders and details on a new U.S. aid package for Ukraine. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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