KYIV, Ukraine — The conflict in Ukraine spilled into NATO territory Tuesday when a missile that landed in a Polish village left two people dead, as Russia launched mass airstrikes across Ukraine in apparent retribution for its stinging loss of the strategic city of Kherson.
In a news conference, President Andrzej Duda said Poland did not have any conclusive evidence indicating who launched the missile. He said investigations were underway and that the United States expressed its willingness to send American experts to help.
“Please, everyone, be calm,” Duda said. “Polish soldiers are on site. There is allied support for us, and commitments are being upheld. We are working.”
President Biden, speaking in Indonesia, where he is attending the Group of 20 forum alongside other world leaders, told reporters that initial assessments of the missile’s trajectory suggest it is “unlikely” to have been fired from Russia. “There is plenty of information that contests that,” the president said, adding later, “but we’ll see.”
As Wednesday arrived in Europe, it remained unclear whether the strike was intentional, or the result of a Russian missile, a Ukrainian air-defense missile or some other explosive projectile that landed in the village. Ukraine uses Russian-made missiles in its air defense systems.
The situation demonstrated the risk that the United States and its NATO allies could be drawn into the conflict beyond arming Ukrainian forces — a possibility that Biden and his administration have sought to avoid. Because Poland is a member of the alliance, the United States is treaty-bound to defend the nation if it is attacked and asks for such help.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address that Russian missiles struck Polish territory on Tuesday and caused electricity outages in Moldova, another of its European neighbors. A missile attack on NATO territory represented “an attack on collective security” and a “significant escalation,” he added, calling on Ukraine’s partners and allies to act.
In a statement on Twitter, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said the incident was not the result of a Ukrainian air-defense missile, calling such a suggestion a “conspiracy theory” being promoted by Russia.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied striking any targets near the border between Ukraine and Poland. In a statement, the ministry called reports in the Polish media about the Przewodow strike “a deliberate provocation in order to escalate the situation.”
“The fragments published in hot pursuit by the Polish media from the scene in the village of Przewodów have nothing to do with Russian weapons,” the statement said.
The situation prompted Duda to raise the country’s military readiness level and hold emergency phone calls with Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden affirmed that he offered U.S. assistance to Poland as it investigates the incident, pledging to “figure out exactly what happened.” He and other world leaders attending the G-20 summit convened an emergency meeting before his brief remarks Wednesday morning.
Biden also conferred with Stoltenberg, who plans to chair a meeting of NATO ambassadors Wednesday morning to discuss the incident, a senior NATO official said. A spokesman for the Polish government said Warsaw may hold consultations with NATO allies under Article 4 of the organization’s charter, which allows member nations to raise any issue of concern, especially related to security, for discussion by the alliance.
The Pentagon’s press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said the Defense Department was looking into the matter and didn’t immediately have any information to corroborate there had been an attack. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are deployed to Poland, assisting with the transfer of Western arms to Ukraine and providing additional security.
The crisis on the border between Poland and Ukraine came as Russia launched one of its biggest missile attacks during the nearly nine-month war in what was widely seen as a lashing out in response to its recent battlefield losses.
The capital, Kyiv, and the cities of Kharkiv in the east and Lviv in the west were among at least 10 major jurisdictions reporting strikes after air raid sirens wailed across the country in the early afternoon. The barrage occurred hours after Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders that stipulated a full Russian withdrawal.
Mayors throughout Ukraine urged residents to take shelter as waves of missile strikes were launched. People huddled in basements, many emerging hours later into pitch darkness because the strikes had knocked out power to much of the country.
Critical energy infrastructure again appeared to be the primary target, Ukrainian officials said, as was the case in a series of strikes last month that followed another stinging Russian loss: Ukraine’s successful attack on the bridge connecting mainland Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Tuesday’s assault was far heavier, Zelensky said in his address to the nation. At least 85 missiles were fired, he said.
Ukraine had been bracing for retaliation following the Russian retreat from Kherson, in Ukraine’s south, the latest major battlefield setback for President Vladimir Putin. By surrendering Kherson, Russia lost control of the only regional capital that its forces had managed to capture since the start of the invasion.
Ukraine’s air force had warned over the weekend that Russia might be planning strikes against Ukrainian cities to coincide with the G-20 summit, which Putin declined to attend. Officials said Tuesday’s attack was evidence that Moscow had no interest in peace talks, despite public assertions in recent weeks that it was prepared to negotiate a settlement.
“Russia responds to Zelensky’s powerful speech at G-20 with a new missile strike,” Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Twitter. “Does anyone seriously think that the Kremlin really wants peace? It wants obedience.”
Russia’s strikes pummeled parts of western Ukraine that have seen fewer Russian attacks since the start of the war. Lviv, about 40 miles from Poland’s border, has air defense systems positioned to down incoming Russian missiles.
Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, said on Twitter that the strikes had left 80 percent of the city without electricity and caused the suspension of heat and hot water.
It was too soon to tell Tuesday evening whether the strike was intentional or if Russia had been aiming for targets inside Ukraine and overshot, said one official familiar with initial assessments of the strike. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an unfolding investigation. The strike coincided with Russia’s attacks on electrical substations and energy infrastructure in western Ukraine, near the Poland border, and many of those missiles struck their apparent, intended targets, the official said.
One senior European diplomat said the incident in Poland did not look like a deliberate Russian attack but noted more information needed to be gathered to make a formal conclusion. “However, this does not change the main point. Russian missile attacks are an escalation, even if a Ukrainian missile is involved, as the chance of accidents is increasing,” said the diplomat, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss early assessments of the strike.
If the explosion in the Polish village is deemed to have been accidental, the United States would probably condemn the attack and look at strengthening Poland’s air defenses, said Jim Townsend, a former top Pentagon and NATO official during the Obama administration. He said he expected NATO to make any decisions deliberately.
“NATO doesn’t make precipitous decisions. They gather the facts first,” Townsend said. “Even after 9/11, it took them a couple of days to be sure it was al-Qaeda that pulled off the airplane attacks.”
The United States triggered Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in response to the 2001 attacks, the only time the treaty’s collective defense article has been triggered in the alliance’s 73-year history.
While the missile attacks Tuesday were part of the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy to degrade Ukraine’s infrastructure as winter approaches, they also seemed intended to demonstrate that Russia can still inflict damage despite being forced repeatedly to retreat from its military objectives.
In Kyiv, at least one person was killed and two residential buildings caught fire, Mayor Vitali Klitschko wrote on Twitter. It was unclear if the damage was caused by a missile strike or parts of a missile intercepted by air defenses.
Residents of the Kyiv street where one of the buildings was hit scrambled to find cover then emerged to assess the damage. There was fear but defiance too. “We hope Russia will die,” said Yulia Melnyk, 28.
A power plant was near one of the buildings that burned in Kyiv, and the mayor of Kharkiv, in the northeast, said parts of that city were without power after hits on energy infrastructure there.
Most of the missiles were fired from warplanes flying over the Russian province of Rostov and the Caspian Sea, according to the Ukrainian air force. Many of the missiles were shot down, along with several Iranian-made Shahed drones, by Ukraine’s air defenses, officials said.
The strikes came as Zelensky outlined for G-20 leaders 10 conditions for a peace settlement. Those included a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from all occupied territories, the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, the payment of reparations by Russia, the release of all prisoners and deported Ukrainian citizens, and accountability for war crimes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was left to defend Russia’s war at the summit after Putin declined to attend, insisted Tuesday that Russia was willing to negotiate with Ukraine on an end to the war, and he accused Kyiv of avoiding peace talks. Russia, however, still insists that Ukraine must accept the loss of illegally annexed territory.
“If anyone refuses, it is Ukraine, and the longer it refuses, the more difficult it will be to agree,” Lavrov told reporters, according to state media. He said Ukraine’s proposals were “unrealistic and inadequate.”
Ukraine’s central demand — that Russia remove its forces and restore Ukraine’s control over its borders — will result in a “real and complete cessation of hostilities,” Zelensky said in his speech.
Sonne reported from Washington. Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung, Karoun Demirjian and Michael Birnbaum in Washington, Emily Rauhala in Brussels, Serhiy Morgunov and David L. Stern in Kyiv, and Matt Viser in Dua Nusa, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
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