EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – An explosion last week in the village of Przewodow in eastern Poland killed two people and sparked heightened concern about how quickly the war in Ukraine could escalate into a global conflict.
The Cipher Brief compiled a tick tock of what happened, telling how a single missile highlighted the risks that are really at stake in Ukraine.
- Polish radio ZET reported that two missiles lost caused the explosion.
- The Associated Press quoted a senior US intelligence official as saying Russian missiles had entered Poland.
- The Pentagon initially said he could not confirm reports that Russian missiles had landed on Polish territory.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense denied the reports, calling the allegations a “deliberate provocation aimed at escalating the situation”. He added that Russia had not hit any targets near the Ukrainian-Polish border and that the debris found at the site of the explosions had “nothing to do with Russian weapons”.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy later said, without providing evidence, that Russian missiles hit Poland. He called the attack on “the territory of our friendly country” an “attack on collective security” and said it marked a “significant escalation” in the conflict with Russia.
- In response to the explosions, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Marawiecki organized an emergency security Council Meet. The Polish government has also increased military readiness.
- Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke with President Joe Biden on explosions. The White House said Biden reiterated to Duda that the United States has an “ironclad commitment to NATO.”
- Duda also discussed the incident with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenbergwho said it was important to find all the facts behind the causes of the explosion.
- A Polish government spokesman said Poland was considering call NATO for Article 4 discussionswhich stipulates that a member of the alliance may request consultations when it considers that its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” are threatened.
“If this was an accident, the instinct in Warsaw and Washington will be caution and restraint, with Article 4 talks signaling the Russians not to get it wrong again,” John McLaughlin told us, encryption brief expert and former acting director of the CIA.
John McLaughlinformer Acting Director of the CIA
“If this was a deliberate provocation, and we will almost certainly find out before long, then the Alliance will be provoked and will have to respond in some way. The default impulse will likely be to avoid getting into a NATO-Russia exchange of blows. But we could relax some of the warnings we gave the Ukrainians about not hitting certain Russian targets or other red lines.
The incident raised alarm bells and calls for NATO homeland defense across Central and Eastern Europe, bringing into sharp focus the question of how quickly NATO would be ready to launch a response and what that answer might look like.
- Latvia appeared to explicitly accuse Russia of causing the explosions. Artis Pabriks, Latvian Defense Minister tweeted, “The Russian criminal regime fired missiles that not only targeted Ukrainian civilians, but also landed in NATO territory in Poland.”
- Estonia has expressed its solidarity with Poland as well as its willingness to “defend every square centimeter of NATO territory”, according to a tweet from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, Estonia did not explicitly blame Russia for the explosions.
- Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also expressed solidarity with Poland and called for the defense of “every square inch of NATO territory”, according to one tweet. He said “the cause of the explosions is not yet known”, but added that they occurred when Russia launched missile strikes in Ukraine.
- Hungary called a meeting of the defense council to discuss the explosions, as well as the disruption of oil flows through the Druzhba pipeline.
“We don’t know enough about the strike yet,” warned expert in encrypted briefs and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis (retired).
Admiral James Stavridis (retired)former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO
“But assuming it was an errant missile from Russia, it provides a strong incentive to bolster air defenses along the NATO-Ukraine border to a minimum. It could also lead to NATO providing MIG-29 planes to the Ukrainians from Poland, the United States replacing them with F-16s And this could cause a serious discussion on the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, occupied by NATO fighters.
The next morning
The Polish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday morning stating that a Russian-made missile caused an explosion in eastern Poland that killed two people. The ministry said it had summoned the Russian ambassador and “demanded an immediate detailed explanation” of the explosions.
- Polish President Andrzej Duda then appeared to backtrack on his full condemnation of Russia, saying there was no conclusive evidence showing who fired the missiles and that investigations were ongoing. He added that the blast appeared to be a “one-off” incident. He also said Poland is likely to request Article 4 consultations at a scheduled date. North Atlantic Council meeting Wednesday.
- President Joe Biden called an emergency meeting of NATO and G7 leaders meeting in Bali for a G20 summit to discuss the missile blast. He told reporters that according to “preliminary information” he thinks “it’s quite unlikelyThe missile was fired from Russia due to its trajectory, but said it would not draw any conclusions until the Polish investigation was completed.
- Three US officials told The Associated Press that preliminary findings suggest the missile that landed in Poland was fired by Ukrainian forces in an attempt to intercept an incoming Russian missile.
- Polish President Andrzej Duda said the blast was “very likely” a “unfortunate accidentcaused by a Ukrainian air defense missile, rather than an “intentional attack”. He added that the missile was “most likely” Russian-made, but there is no current evidence that Russian forces fired it.
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Duda’s conclusion, while stressing that “it is not Ukraine’s fault” and that “Russia bears the ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine”.
Sir Alex Youngformer head of MI6
“It is, quite literally, a warning shot about the possibility of escalation,” Sir Alex Younger, an expert in cipher briefs and former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, told us. “But I am convinced that Putin understands that a deliberate escalation is really not in his interest. I would add that even if it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, the blame still lies firmly with Russia.
What have we learned?
Among other things, we learned how dangerously close a single missile can be to escalating an already tense situation to a higher level of global conflict. We learned how quickly information is shared and we saw how NATO countries were planning to at least react, if the missile had in fact been fired by Russia. While the lessons of this single incident are worth noting, so is the situation as a whole.
“In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the West’s response was inadequate. Russia was able to keep 20% of the Georgian nation,” Phil Breedlove (retired), encrypted brief expert and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Phil Breedlove, told us.
General Phil Breedlove (retired)former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO
“The Western world has rewarded Russia’s bad behavior. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and took 11 or 12% of Ukrainian territory. Moscow threatened to blow up and blow up our house with World War III or their nuclear weapons. Once again the West capitulated and allowed them to hold on to much of Ukraine. For the second time, we rewarded bad behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re back for the third time. Russia has taken over another large part of Ukraine. And when the West starts to react, Russia huffed and huffed and threatened to blow up our house with WWIII and nuclear weapons. And they expect us to surrender a third time. We in the West are at a decision point, will we, for the third time, reward bad behavior? The West and the Western world have a decision to make. Mr Putin huffs and he huffs and he threatens to blow up our house and we have to decide how we are going to react. Here’s what I know for sure: if we capitulate and allow Russia to retain even more Ukrainian territory, we’ll be back here in 2025 and 2028 and 2031 and 2033. It’s time for us to step up.
Cipher Brief Writer and Researcher Ethan Masucol contributed to this article
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