The explosion at a farm in the small Polish town of Przewodów on Tuesday, just six kilometers from Ukraine, where Russian shelling is ongoing, raised new fears in the West of an escalation with Russia. Also because the incident on the soil of a country of the Atlantic Alliance and the EU led to a clash between nuclear powers. The Polish authorities, NATO and the United States point out that the detonation, in which two people died, was the result of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile on a day when Russia had applied forcefully in its war on the neighboring country. Warsaw, Washington and the Atlantic Alliance favor the accident hypothesis and have ruled out an intentional attack by Moscow.
The explosion was a “reminder” that the war in Ukraine can quickly spill over into alliance territory, either by accident or on purpose, says Jamie Shea, a military expert who has served in several key NATO posts. The event, in which the first deaths have been recorded in the territory of the Alliance and the European Union as a direct consequence of the war launched by Vladimir Putin, has functioned as a stress test on the response capacity of the military organization —of which Poland and Spain are part of— and its members.
The reaction from Poland, the United States and NATO was cold and coordinated, two veteran Western diplomats agree. Intelligence sources say it was unlikely that if Russia had wanted to attack Poland she would have chosen a corn silo in a village to do so. In addition, the United States tracks the flight paths of Russian missiles and has powerful surveillance systems in the area. The watchword of the military alliance and the United States for Warsaw was caution. “Poland tried to calm the narrative and avoid an escalation driven by the story,” analyzes Katja-Elisabeth Herrmann, an expert at the Warsaw Institute analysis center.
After the explosion in Przewodów, at 3:40 p.m. on Tuesday, the Polish government summoned the National Security and Defense Committee urgently. Several hours passed until the president, Andrzej Duda, and the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, appeared to report that the missile was with a very high probability “of Russian manufacture” and to point out, without further details, that its origin had not been determined. ; also that it didn’t look like a deliberate attack. A message that contrasted with the one spread by a news agency that quoted a US intelligence source that pointed out that the missile was Russian.
The meeting of the Polish security council had its echo in the diplomatic representations of NATO. Behind the scenes, hundreds of calls and messages between the Polish representation in the alliance, Washington and also cross contacts between some allies of the military organization and Warsaw; above all the Baltics, the eastern flank of NATO, points out a diplomatic source. There was tension but no panic, he says. The objective has been to try at all costs to have clear evidence and avoid escalation, he says. In the background, in one way or another, the responsibility of Russia, which that same Tuesday had launched the largest missile attacks against Ukraine in almost nine months of war.
Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, an analysis center close to the government, points out that Warsaw was in permanent contact with its allies. “After this process of fitting all the pieces of the investigative puzzle together, Poland began to brief all parties at the highest level overnight: [al presidente ucranio Volodímir] Zelenski, to Joe Biden [presidente de EE UU]Emmanuel Macron [presidente de Francia]Olaf Schölz [canciller de Alemania]etc.,” he explains. “The next day, at NATO headquarters, there were consultations to put the Alliance and all the allies on the same page.”
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From Bali, where the G-20 summit was taking place, the US president, Joe Biden, called the Polish president and reiterated the indication of caution, diplomatic sources comment. A little later, Biden was already taking aim at a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile as a result of the explosion. A thesis, in the absence of final confirmation, which was repeated hours later by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, who also spoke of the anti-aircraft batteries (probably Soviet-made) and who pointed to Russia as ultimately responsible for its war in Ukraine. and the death of Ukrainian and Polish civilians. “This is not Ukraine’s fault,” he said. “Russia bears the ultimate responsibility.” “This is a direct result of the ongoing war,” he added. “Of course Ukraine has the right to defend itself,” he emphasized.
With the eyes of half the world on his reaction, Stoltenberg insisted that the situation was under control at all times. NATO, he said, “is prepared for situations like this.” First, to prevent them and, if that fails, to ensure they don’t get out of control. The management of the Alliance was, considers Luis Simón, director of the Elcano Institute in Brussels, “exemplary”: “Poland’s initiative has been respected when it comes to clarifying the facts. Tensions have been lowered from the outset, which has favored proper handling of possible escalation dynamics. And Russia has been singled out as ultimately responsible for being the aggressor, recalling Ukraine’s legitimate right to defend itself.”
kyiv’s allies are adamant that the fundamental reason why the territory and citizenship of NATO countries are being threatened is Russian aggression against Ukraine. Shea, who today teaches Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter, does not rule out that NATO should at some point invoke its Article 5, according to which an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all, or at least consider taking retaliatory measures against Russia that go beyond additional sanctions. “The fact that the incident in Poland appears to have been caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile means that NATO does not need to face this difficult decision immediately. But the war in Ukraine is likely to continue for a long time and further attacks on NATO territory cannot be ruled out,” she notes. “The alliance will need to accelerate its contingency planning for such an eventuality. It will also be necessary to improve its air and missile defense along its eastern border, ”he adds.
However, the more modern NATO deploys anti-aircraft systems on its own soil, the more difficult it will be to supply Ukraine, which also badly needs these capabilities. On Wednesday, a day after the explosion in Poland, the assistant secretary general, Mircea Geoana, held a long meeting with the national arms directors of the allied countries to replenish their inventories and reserves.
Washington and other allies are trying to find ways to help kyiv, but the incident in Poland and the response of the Executive of Volodimir Zelenski, who has insisted on the theory of the Russian missile and flatly denied that the explosion was the result of a missile from the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses, is playing against kyiv in some Alliance and European Union circles. The Kremlin has already used the disagreement between Zelensky and Biden over the Przewodów case as fuel. Also the ultra-conservative Viktor Orbán, considered one of Putin’s allies in the EU, who has warned of the risk of escalation and has insisted that although he will support Ukraine “bilaterally”, he will not support the Brussels plan to give him 18,000 million euros in loans the country needs to stay afloat.
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