The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Missile in Poland was accident, NATO says. But spillover fear remains.

Polish police officers search for wreckage Wednesday near where a missile struck, killing two people in the village of Przewodow. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

BRUSSELS — The missile that landed in Poland, killing two people Tuesday, was not part of a Russian attack, the leaders of NATO and Poland said Wednesday, easing fears of an escalation with Moscow after more than 20 hours of intense worry and speculation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that an explosion in the town of Przewodow was probably caused by an errant Ukrainian air defense missile launched in response to Russian strikes. In separate remarks, Polish President Andrzej Duda also said the evidence suggested an unfortunate accident.

Both figures stressed that Russia was ultimately to blame for having instigated a barrage of strikes that required Ukraine to defend itself. And President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to insist the stray missile was not from Ukrainian forces. “I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike,” he said. But fear of an imminent direct military conflict between Russia and NATO has clearly subsided.

Separately, the U.S. intelligence community obtained new information substantiating that Tuesday’s explosions were from one or possibly two Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missiles that went off course, said a person familiar with the intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.

The Soviet-era Ukrainian missiles are older and less reliable than the newer missile defense systems Kyiv has received from the West that have intercepted dozens of incoming Russian missiles.

Regardless, Tuesday’s episode served as a reminder of the enduring potential for the conflict to snowball, intentionally or not.

“What it shows is the seriousness of Russian aggression and that its consequences go beyond Ukraine,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an email to The Washington Post.

Two dead in Poland as Ukraine war spills into NATO territory

The first public signs of trouble were Polish media reports of missile strikes that hit at 3:40 p.m. local time Tuesday, resulting in two deaths at a grain facility about four miles from the Ukrainian border.

Analysts immediately recognized the incident could be a major turning point in the war.

“This is the first time that citizens of a NATO country have been killed in a NATO country in this war,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office. “And this is a big deal.”

Poland’s Council of Ministers quickly convened, and Duda spoke with Stoltenberg and U.S. officials about what might have happened, and whether it might constitute a threat to Polish territorial integrity.

While security officials adopted a cautious stance, saying they needed time to investigate what they referred to as an “explosion,” the possibility of a hit on a NATO member state reverberated across a continent on edge after more than eight months of war.

Public anxiety ratcheted up further when the Associated Press flashed a story, sourced to an anonymous senior U.S. intelligence official, saying Russian missiles had crossed into Poland.

Then came Zelensky, who in his nightly remarks blamed Russia for what happened in Poland, as well as for launching dozens of missiles across Ukraine on Tuesday, including strikes on critical infrastructure.

“Russian missiles hit Poland. How many times has Ukraine said that the terrorist state will not be limited to our country?” he said.

“Hitting NATO territory with missiles,” he continued, “this is a Russian missile attack on collective security! This is a really significant escalation. Action is needed.”

Although Zelensky did not cite specific evidence, the suggestion that the explosions could be a direct, deliberate attack on NATO territory quickly led to speculation about NATO’s Article 5, which states that “an armed attack against one or more of [the members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that force can be used in response.

“I have to believe that it was a mistake by Russia,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon. “And I think if it is, Russia should come out very quickly and say that.” If it was not a mistake, he said, Article 5 would require support for NATO ally Poland.

Officials and analysts also speculated that Poland might invoke Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows members to bring any issue of concern, especially related to security, for discussion at the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s political decision-making body.

Top Polish officials did not refer to either article when they issued public statements Tuesday night. Instead, Duda said the missile probably was “a Russian-made rocket” but emphasized that “we do not have clear evidence” who launched it. He said his air defense forces were on high alert but would “act calmly and prudently.”

The tone shifted further after an emergency meeting between President Biden and top allies one the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Biden emerged saying there was “plenty of information to contest that it was fired from Russia.”

Hours later, after NATO ambassadors gathered at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters, Stoltenberg announced that preliminary investigations suggested the explosion in Poland was “likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory.”

“Let me be clear: This is not Ukraine’s fault,” he said at a news conference. “Russia bears the ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

In separate remarks, Duda said the missile was “an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union, an old rocket, and there is no evidence it was launched by the Russian side.”

Polish officials were continuing to lead an investigation.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the United States had “full confidence” in the Polish government’s assessments. “We will not get ahead of their work and remain in close touch with our Polish counterparts, as we are still gathering information,” she said.

Zelensky, though, questioned Poland’s conclusions, saying his commanders had assured him that it “was not our rocket or rocket strike. It makes no sense not to trust them — we’ve gone through the entire war together.”

Zelensky called for access to the explosion site and for more evidence from Poland.

“If that was our air defense system, and everyone understands this, because they found debris on Polish territory — I want this proof,” he said. “And then we will openly say this.”

Russian officials on Wednesday expressed indignation and sought to position themselves as the responsible actors. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned early reports about a possible Russian strike in Poland as a “hysterical, obviously rabidly Russophobic reaction that was not based on any real data.” He told reporters that the episode showed “we should never rush to assessments and make statements that can inflame the situation.”

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev also condemned the reports, tweeting: “The incident with the Ukrainian-alleged ‘missile strike’ on a Polish farm proves just one thing: waging a hybrid war against Russia, the West moves closer to the world war.”

It remains to be seen whether or how the incident in Poland will shape the conflict. Baranowski, of the German Marshall Fund, predicted the incident will galvanize Ukraine’s allies.

During G-20 discussions, Russia and China had pushed hard against the use of the word “war” to refer to the invasion, delegates told The Washington Post. But in the final declaration that was released, leaders said the “war in Ukraine further adversely impact[ed] the global economy.”

“The question now,” Baranowski said, “is, how do we, with the Ukrainians, stop Russian air and missile attacks throughout Ukraine and if they spill over to NATO territory?”

He anticipated calls for more robust antimissile support.

Stern reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ebel from London. Rebecca Tan and Matt Viser in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, and Annabelle Chapman in Paris and John Hudson in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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