Polish soldiers search for debris in a field near the site of a missile strike in the Polish village of Przewodow near the border with Ukraine [Photo Credit: Aljazeera]
Russia’s war in Ukraine jolted NATO this week when a missile exploded in a Polish village near the Ukrainian border, killing two people.
Immediately after Tuesday’s blast, Polish President Andrzej Duda said the explosive that hit Przewodow, a village of hundreds of people, was “most likely Russian-made” as an investigation was still ongoing.
His statement sent shockwaves across the world, and NATO leaders expressed their will to defend every inch of territory in the world’s largest military alliance, of which Poland is a member.
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Military analysts took to social media to suggest that this could be a moment when the alliance would invoke Article 4, a consultation between NATO countries when one member feels threatened, or Article 5, when an attack is considered violence against the entire alliance, allowing NATO to decide on the action it deems fit to protect its members.
The same day, Russia pummelled critical Ukrainian infrastructure with a wave of missile strikes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the explosion in Poland “a very significant escalation” and said, “We must act.”
But NATO and Western nations, including the United States have since calmed fears, suggesting the missile was a stray, likely part of Ukraine’s air defence systems. Nevertheless, they said Russia bears overall responsibility as the aggressor and instigator of the war.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has maintained a cautious stance throughout the episode and did not blame Russia as he waited for Polish intelligence.
A day after the explosion, Duda joined his Western allies to say the blast was probably a Ukrainian accident and did not invoke any NATO article.
Stoltenberg said a preliminary analysis suggests a Ukrainian air defence missile landed in Poland and was fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks.
Jim Townsend, US deputy assistant defence secretary for Europe and NATO under former President Barack Obama, welcomed NATO’s approach.
Alexander Lanoszka, assistant professor of international relations at the Canada’s University of Waterloo, told Al Jazeera that the incident demonstrates that “NATO territory cannot be purely insulated from the air defence challenges that Ukraine faces”.
But a direct military intervention against Russia “is too risky”, he said, “because of states’ reasonable concerns about nuclear escalation. Nevertheless, they might let go of some of the hang-ups they have had about the provision of certain platforms to Ukraine.”
Had NATO concluded the missile was Russian and the blast was an intentional attack, the most likely response would have been “an increase of that military assistance”, Lanoszka said.
Speaking from the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, US President Joe Biden said “it was unlikely” the missile was fired by Russia.
His restraint was lavished with rare praise by the Kremlin.
But Russia slammed some Western countries, especially Poland, over their initial responses.
The blast occurred a day before NATO was due to convene a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, in which participants would decide on future packages of military assistance.
Harry Nedelcu, geopolitics director at Rasmussen Global and leader of its Ukraine Advisory Service, also stressed that the incident happened on a day “when a string of Russian missiles hit several Ukrainian cities with an aim of terrorising civilians and targeting power grids. Ukraine, in turn, used its air defence systems. So whichever way you look at it, context matters.”
For now, Ukraine has requested access to the area where the missile landed, which Poland will likely grant.
As late as Tuesday evening, Zelenskyy maintained that the missile was a “message from Russia to the G20 summit”.
Since Poland and other nations such as Latvia were quick to blame Russia, “this incident further reinforces Russia’s narrative of the West ‘pushing for World War III’,” Kamil Zwolski, associate professor of international politics at the University of Southampton, told Al Jazeera. “But Russia’s reaction was entirely predictable.”