How Russia responded to the Polish missile incident

How Russia responded to the Polish missile incident

Updated: 2 months, 21 days, 10 hours, 9 minutes, 43 seconds ago

Yesterday, during the largest wave of missile strikes conducted by Russia since February, a shell flew six kilometres over the Ukrainian border into Poland, killing two people. Before any facts had been established, there was confusion in the Russian media whether to report on the story with outraged protestation or excitement.

To begin with, Russian commentators reacted with glee. TV presenter and known Kremlin mouthpiece Margarita Simonyan gloated on social media, referencing recent Ukrainian shelling on the Russian border and taunting ‘Now Poland has its own Belgorod region, what did you expect?’.

Nevertheless, several hours after the news broke, a statement came from the Russian Ministry of Defence denying responsibility for the missile. It read: ‘The statements of the Polish media and officials about the alleged fall of “Russian” missiles in near ​​​​the settlement of Przewodow is a deliberate provocation in order to escalate the current situation. No strikes were made against targets near the Ukrainian-Polish state border by Russian weapons.’

The ministry’s statement changed the tone for how the incident was now to be discussed by the Russian press. Several media outlets rowed out military experts to back up the Kremlin’s statement. The broadsheet Izvestiya interviewed its resident military expert to confirm that the shell fragments found on the ground in Poland look like they are part of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapon and were ‘too small’ to be Russian. Similarly, state-supporting news agency RIA Novosti carries quotes from expert Igor Korotchenko saying that Ukraine is likely responsible for the incident because its ‘air defence systems have not undergone proper inspection and maintenance since the collapse of the USSR’.

Whether bluff or sincere, Russia’s decision to accuse Poland of a deliberate provocation is a strategic piece of propaganda

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A day on, Russia’s involvement in the incident has yet to be confirmed – a Nato investigation is. now underway. As my colleague James Forsyth writes, much confusion regarding the situation remains. Western leaders have, understandably, been hesitant to apportion blame or responsibility for the rogue missile before all the facts are established. With Poland’s status as a member of Nato, the consequences for Russia were it found to be responsible for sending the missile into its territory would potentially be profound.

There are several key questions that will need to be answered. Because of the similarity between Russian and Ukrainian weaponry, there are questions over whether the missile could have been a stray Ukrainian air defence rocket, or a Russian shell knocked off course by the Ukrainian defence system.

Where the missile came from has also yet to be determined. Speaking at the G20 summit in Bali, US President Joe Biden said that the shell’s trajectory meant it was ‘unlikely’ to have been fired from Russia. Nevertheless, this does not mean conclusively that it was fired from Ukraine – since February, Russia has been using Belarus (which also shares a border with Poland) as a launch pad for its missile strikes. 

The Russian media has jumped on Biden’s comments as proof of its innocence, giving his remarks prime coverage. RIA Novosti takes his words as fact, intentionally misreporting him as saying ‘preliminary information shows that the fallen rocket did not come from Russia’. President Erdogan of Turkey’s acknowledgement of Russia’s denial has also been claimed as a victory by the press. The government news agency TASS devotes a whole article to his press statement on the issue, saying he ‘does not consider Russia to be involved’.

Russia’s denial that they aimed any missiles at the Ukrainian-Polish border is untrue – shelling was recorded in the Ukrainian city of Lviv just 72 kilometres from the border during yesterday’s attack. Nevertheless, whether bluff or sincere, Russia’s decision to accuse Poland of a deliberate provocation is a strategic piece of propaganda. It plays into the rhetoric increasingly seen from the Kremlin in recent months that Russia is facing Nato aggression and, far from being the aggressor, must do what it can to protect itself. Former Russian president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev tweeted yesterday that the incident ‘proves just one thing: waging a hybrid war against Russia, the West moves closer to the world war.’ 

This propaganda is already swinging into action. As soon as the news broke yesterday, Russian military bloggers immediately began peddling analysis of the Kremlin’s statement which quickly strayed into the realms of conspiracy theory. On his Telegram channel, former Putin advisor Sergei Markov stated that, as no Russian missiles had been aimed at the Ukrainian-Polish border, this also meant, in fact, that what landed in Poland could not be Ukrainian defence weaponry, as there is no reason they would be up in the air if no Russian missiles were present. 

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‘So this is a deliberate provocation by Poland?’ he wrote, ‘The most dangerous option. This means they have some sort of plan in mind. The Russophobic leaders of Poland must be stopped before they set the world on fire!’

It may yet take some time to establish the extent of Russia’s culpability in this incident. But regardless of the outcome, the Kremlin has gained some useful propaganda material from the confusion surrounding it, and the West’s hesitancy to immediately point fingers. And all the while, Putin will be watching Nato’s response to calculate where red lines in the conflict currently stand. This incident almost certainly marks a crossroads in the war in Ukraine – what sort of crossroads that is remains to be seen.

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