“There is no indication that this was a deliberate Russian aggression on NATO,” affirmed Jens Stoltenberg, the Western military alliance’s secretary general, on Wednesday, following the explosion of a missile in the Polish border town of Przewodów. He said that the missile was likely Ukrainian, but that the incident was Russia’s fault. This line was taken by Polish President Andrzej Duda, and later by President Joe Biden.
The Ukrainians understandably are demanding a presence at the investigation of what their friends as well as their enemies claim is one of their missiles.
Both of whom as well as a fortiori Stoltenberg are well aware of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. It says that an attack on any member is an attack on all. That is the basic logic of collective security. We invoked it on 9/11, and the Allies responded as one.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has stated there is no cause to escalate toward the unthinkable; only a threat to France’s vital interests, he said, would justify that. But from Bali, where he is attending a G-20 meeting, he affirmed that France has Poland’s back (this is an old romance) and that the allies must act in close consultation in determining what happened and what the response should be.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine can read treaties as well as the others. His application to join NATO, which Vladimir Putin insists represents a threat to Russia, has not been approved; does Zelensky believe an attack on a member of the alliance serves his war aims? At any rate, he insists the hit could not have come from his air defense arsenal.
Two fatalities were reported from Przewodów. Duda for now says that he thinks a tragic mistake occurred and no such awful accidents are expected.
The Russian side assured the missile could not have been its own. The hit on Poland coincided with an intensive bombardment of Ukrainian towns and cities. Ukrainian anti-aircraft responded with all barrels, according to reports from the Ukrainian defense ministry. It is not impossible that, as they threw everything they had into the air to protect themselves, a shot went astray.
Just what happened is not yet known, and it may remain so. The investigation may find traces of Russian ordnance, but the Russians could reply that the Ukrainians have plenty of that of their own, as well as the Western-supplied arms and ammo they have received from NATO countries, notably including the U.S. under both Democratic and Republican administrations, since 2014.
Both sides have been fighting the propaganda war every day, and lies and disinformation are to be expected, as well as furious charges and counter-charges designed to spread panic, as we have seen (or heard) concerning the possible uses of “dirty bombs” and the security, or lack thereof, around Ukrainian nuclear power plants, raising the specter of a Chernobyl disaster under conditions far more catastrophic than the original.
Without getting into ethno-historical barstool speculation, it is a known fact that the Russians burned Moscow to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. They destroyed Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) brick by brick to defeat the German armies that invaded their homeland.
Their revenge, as they marched west, was savage. The heroic Ukrainian people may make another such march remain a mad Putin fantasy. And yet, but should the Russians ever overrun Ukraine and reach Lviv, and then threaten to keep going, President Duda will have to choose between invoking Article 5 and declaring Bialystok and Warsaw open cities; President Macron might be interpreted as having done so already with regard to Paris when he unilaterally ruled out nukes.
Boris Johnson, one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, expressed the view in the Wall Street Journal the other day that there could be no negotiations in this war and that it had to be all or nothing, meaning any territory claimed by Ukraine must be recovered before a peace can be signed, and anyway it would be an armed peace because, he noted, the Russians lie a lot.
The Ukrainians understandably are demanding a presence at the investigation of what their friends as well as their enemies claim is one of their missiles. Whether they should be invited in or politely turned back is a matter for the striped pants set; the experts will report to their own commands. These will judge what they should say in public, if anything.
John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 kept his nerve and reassured his fellow Americans that he had the situation under control, while allowing that bombing drills were not inappropriate. This — and deployments in the air and at sea, as well as secret diplomacy — convinced Nikita Khrushchev to back down. The Soviet boss was given a face-saving card — the withdrawal of medium-range U.S. missiles from Turkish bases. It saved his face but not his job. He was overthrown in a palace coup by Leonid Brezhnev. He was thankful to not get a bullet in the neck.
If there is a formula under which NATO and Ukraine can agree with Putin to de-escalate, another, and potentially much worse, “Przewodów incident” will be avoided. But this is a very big “if” indeed. And we can only speculate what might happen eventually to President Putin, and what it will mean for Ukraine — and us.