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Explosion in Poland may put NATO in a tricky situation

Depending on whether Warsaw invokes NATO provisions, alliance will have to decide how to respond, expert says

Smoke viewed from Nowosiolki, Poland, near the border with Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Stowarzyszenie Moje Nowosiolki/Reuters)

There are suggestions that an explosion in Poland that reportedly killed two people was possibly the result of a Russian missile. It’s not clear what happened, but the Polish government is holding an emergency meeting, and it may possibly invoke NATO provisions. I asked M.E. Sarotte, the Kravis professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of “The Collapse” and “Not One Inch,” to explain the history and what may happen next.

Q: You describe in your book on NATO expansion, “Not One Inch,” how the famous Polish leader Lech Walesa explained decades ago that “we are all afraid of Russia. ... If Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed toward Ukraine and Poland.” Was Walesa right?

A: Walesa, the former Polish president and a Nobel laureate, is obviously a major figure of history. Whether today’s explosion in Poland resulted from an intentional, aggressive Russian policy directed toward both Ukraine and Poland — as opposed to resulting from an aggressive strike directed toward Ukraine that went horribly off course into Poland — is not clear at the time of writing. Both options of course represent acts of aggression but would have different consequences. As of now, the Russian Defense Ministry is denying that Moscow is the author of the strikes.

Q: Poland, of course, succeeded in becoming a member of NATO. How does NATO membership protect it from aggression by Russia and other hostile powers?

A: NATO seeks to protect its allies from attack by any enemy (not just Russia) through a variety of means, among them both conventional and nuclear deterrence, as well as signaling of the potential consequences of aggression against allied territory. Particularly important in this regard are Articles 4 and 5 of the treaty that created NATO. The former guarantees that allies “will consult together whenever ... the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” The latter guarantees that allies will consider “an armed attack against one or more of them ... [as] an attack against them all” and that NATO will in response take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

Q: Poland might choose to invoke either Article 4 or Article 5. What are the implications if Poland invokes one rather than the other?

A: To boil the above down to its essence: Article 4 guarantees consultations. Article 5 guarantees that allies will, in response to an attack, take whatever action they deem necessary. Because Article 5 states that such action may include force, its invocation would make the chance of armed conflict higher.

Q: There have been worries since the beginning that the Ukraine conflict might lead to “inadvertent escalation.” Is that happening now?

A: It bears repeating that, as of the time of writing, it is not yet clear what is happening. But it is indeed possible that the events of Nov. 15 may represent inadvertent escalation. The potential for such escalation is one of the most dangerous aspects of the current conflict in Ukraine.

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