Deaths in Poland Are a Warning for Everyone

Errant missiles from Ukraine are a reminder that wars can always escalate accidentally.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Aerial view taken on November 17, 2022 shows the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine on November 15, 2022.
Aerial view taken on November 17, 2022 shows the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine on November 15, 2022.
Aerial view taken on November 17, 2022 shows the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine on November 15, 2022. WOJTEK RADWANSKI,DAMIEN SIMONART/AFP via Getty Images

If you think the risks of escalation in the Ukraine war are trivial, the tragic deaths of two Polish citizens from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile on Tuesday should give you some pause. A big war is underway in Ukraine, and even if the adversaries are trying to be careful, big wars are messy affairs rife with uncertainty and filled with unintended consequences. Weapons malfunction, local commanders don’t always follow orders, and the fog of war makes it hard to discern what the enemy is doing and easy to misread their intentions.

Although cooler heads soon prevailed in this incident, it still illustrates the potential for accidental or inadvertent escalation. When reports that a missile had hit Polish territory were first announced, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it an “escalation” by Russia while Polish officials spoke of invoking Articles 4 and 5 of the NATO treaty, framing the event as a threat to the security of the alliance. Once the true origins of the “attack” were understood, Western officials were quick to absolve Ukraine of any responsibility for the tragedy, noting (correctly) that Ukraine had fired the errant missile to defend itself against Russian missile strikes on critical infrastructure, and reminding everyone that Russia started the war and is illegally occupying Ukrainian territory.

U.S. and Polish officials deserve credit for quickly identifying the true nature of this unfortunate event and acting to damp down pressures to escalate, but that is hardly grounds for complacency. Imagine what might have happened had it been a Russian missile that had gone off course and struck Polish territory, killing two people in the process. Moscow would have either denied any involvement or claimed that it was an accident, but even if the Russians had been telling the truth, who would have believed them? Pressure to respond in some fashion would have been intense, fueled by speculation that Moscow had ordered the attack to test NATO’s resolve. Some analysts would have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was testing the waters for a possible nuclear strike or trying to gauge whether Russia could get away with direct attacks on key logistical nodes outside Ukraine. A chorus of voices would have argued that NATO had to retaliate against Russia to “restore deterrence.”

If you think the risks of escalation in the Ukraine war are trivial, the tragic deaths of two Polish citizens from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile on Tuesday should give you some pause. A big war is underway in Ukraine, and even if the adversaries are trying to be careful, big wars are messy affairs rife with uncertainty and filled with unintended consequences. Weapons malfunction, local commanders don’t always follow orders, and the fog of war makes it hard to discern what the enemy is doing and easy to misread their intentions.

Although cooler heads soon prevailed in this incident, it still illustrates the potential for accidental or inadvertent escalation. When reports that a missile had hit Polish territory were first announced, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it an “escalation” by Russia while Polish officials spoke of invoking Articles 4 and 5 of the NATO treaty, framing the event as a threat to the security of the alliance. Once the true origins of the “attack” were understood, Western officials were quick to absolve Ukraine of any responsibility for the tragedy, noting (correctly) that Ukraine had fired the errant missile to defend itself against Russian missile strikes on critical infrastructure, and reminding everyone that Russia started the war and is illegally occupying Ukrainian territory.

U.S. and Polish officials deserve credit for quickly identifying the true nature of this unfortunate event and acting to damp down pressures to escalate, but that is hardly grounds for complacency. Imagine what might have happened had it been a Russian missile that had gone off course and struck Polish territory, killing two people in the process. Moscow would have either denied any involvement or claimed that it was an accident, but even if the Russians had been telling the truth, who would have believed them? Pressure to respond in some fashion would have been intense, fueled by speculation that Moscow had ordered the attack to test NATO’s resolve. Some analysts would have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was testing the waters for a possible nuclear strike or trying to gauge whether Russia could get away with direct attacks on key logistical nodes outside Ukraine. A chorus of voices would have argued that NATO had to retaliate against Russia to “restore deterrence.”

The incident—especially Zelensky’s reflexive response—also shows that Ukraine will try to use events of this sort to assign more blame to Russia and garner greater sympathy and support from the outside world. Indeed, the New York Times reported that as of Wednesday evening Zelensky was saying he “was unconvinced by the initial findings and that he still believed a Russian missile was involved.” One can understand the logic behind his behavior, but it is not in our interest, even if it might be in Ukraine’s. And this approach could easily backfire, with the Financial Times reporting an unnamed Western diplomat as saying, “This is getting ridiculous. The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”

There is no question that Ukraine deserves an ample voice in determining its fate, but the outside powers supporting Ukraine get a voice as well. “Standing with Ukraine” does not and should not mean placing our own interests and concerns on hold, especially when they do not always overlap with Kyiv’s interests or objectives. No responsible world leader can or should sacrifice their country’s interests for another’s, and a good ally tells its partners if it thinks they are acting unwisely.

Nor should we forget that “accidental” or “inadvertent” escalation is neither the only nor the most likely way this war could expand and get more deadly. States at war typically escalate not because some critical threshold is breached by the other side or because they misread something the other side has done, but because they are losing. That is why Germany adopted unrestricted submarine warfare in World War I and used V-1 and V-2 rockets in World War II, why Japan began employing kamikaze attacks in the Pacific War, and why the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970.

This dynamic is already at work in Ukraine today. What began as a “special military operation” expected to last a few days or weeks has become a major war of attrition with no end in sight. After repeated setbacks, Russia has mobilized several hundred thousand more troops (a step Putin clearly did not expect to take when he started the war), and it is now waging a deliberate campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure. At the same time, Ukraine’s allies have ramped up their own diplomatic, economic, and military support. There is nothing “accidental” about this process; escalation is occurring because neither side is ready to negotiate a settlement and each side wants to win and certainly not lose.

It is easy to understand Ukraine’s position: The Ukrainians are fighting for their survival. Our sympathies and material support are with them and rightly so. But because Americans are accustomed to blaming the world’s problems on the evil nature of autocratic leaders, they have more trouble recognizing that Putin and his associates believe that their vital interests are at stake as well. To acknowledge that reality is not a defense of what Putin has ordered or a justification of what the Russian military has done to Ukraine; it is simply a reminder that Moscow didn’t go to war for its own amusement and that it isn’t likely to accept defeat easily.

Unfortunately, this situation highlights both why ending the war is desirable and why doing so faces enormous obstacles. If the war goes on, the danger of more dangerous incidents and the danger of a deliberate decision to escalate will remain uncomfortably high. Furthermore, we cannot be confident that future incidents will be properly interpreted or that the temptations to raise the stakes will always be resisted. Those who have called for greater attention to diplomacy and more serious efforts to reach a settlement are correct to emphasize the perils that remain so long as the bullets and missiles are flying.

But negotiations are no panacea; indeed, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects of diplomacy working. Ukraine has considerable momentum on the battlefield at present, but there’s no sign that Moscow is ready to compromise, let alone meet all of Ukraine’s demands. If both sides believe they can improve their situation by fighting on, no deal is possible.

And even if each side became interested in serious talks, the obstacles to success would be formidable. There is deep hatred and zero trust between Moscow and Kyiv. A multitude of stakeholders and interested parties will want some say in the outcome. The list of practical issues that must be addressed is lengthy and daunting: disengagement of forces, delineation of borders, repatriation of prisoners and kidnapped citizens, reconstruction assistance for Ukraine, future security guarantees, accountability for war crimes, the lifting of sanctions, etc., etc., all of which will be exceedingly difficult to resolve. A mediator with the combined virtues of Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, Zhou Enlai, Lakhdar Brahimi, Richard Holbrooke, and Jimmy Carter would find it hard to make much headway right now.

I can see one possible silver lining in this regrettable incident. If it reminds everyone that wars tend to escalate the longer they go on—and that escalation might have catastrophic results—the errant missile might incentivize leaders on both sides to try to shut down the conflict as soon as possible. If they don’t, odds are that there will surely be another dangerous incident down the road, and who knows what will happen the next time.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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