Poland Missile Strike Triggers Surprise Clash Between Ukraine and NATO

Just hours after NATO’s leadership announced that a “preliminary” investigation into a fatal strike in Poland Tuesday was “likely” caused by Ukrainian air defenses and not a deliberate Russian attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doubling down and insisting that Ukraine is not responsible.

“I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike. We have to participate in the investigation,” Zelensky said, according to NEXTA.

Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, shared a tweet claiming that allegations the Ukrainian air defense was behind the hit in Poland were false and a “conspiracy theory” on Tuesday. The tweet had not been removed as of Wednesday, despite NATO’s announcement that Ukraine was “likely” behind the incident.

“Russia now promotes a conspiracy theory that it was allegedly a missile of Ukrainian air defense that fell on the Polish theory. Which is not true,” Kuleba said.

The assertions that Ukraine was not involved in the incident, which killed two, come amid a flurry of finger-pointing about who was responsible. The fatal explosion in Poland near the border with Ukraine came just hours after Russia rained down missiles in cities throughout Ukraine Tuesday, raising questions about whether the attack had led to an accidental—or an intentional—strike on neighboring Poland.

In the minutes after the incident in Poland, Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials were quick to deny involvement and alleged that Russia was responsible. Zelensky invoked the language of NATO collective defense and rallied behind the idea that collective action should be taken.

“This is a Russian missile attack on collective security. This is a very significant escalation. We need to act,” Zelensky said.

Russia has claimed that the accusations were intended to escalate the situation. Speculation has also bubbled up that it is possible that Ukrainian air defenses working to intercept Russian missile attacks fell into Poland, the “likely” scenario that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg referenced in his announcement earlier Wednesday.

The incident—and finger-pointing based on incomplete information about what happened—has threatened to form the most escalatory turning point yet in Russia’s nine-month-long invasion of Ukraine. It has raised questions over whether a collective response under NATO Article V could be triggered if the incident is determined to be an attack on NATO member Poland, which could dramatically expand Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Investigations are ongoing into what caused the incident, according to Stoltenberg.

In apparent contradiction to Zelensky’s claim, the White House said Wednesday that the Biden administration has no information that contradicts the suggestion that it was “most likely” a Ukrainian air defense missile that fell in Poland.

“We have seen nothing that contradicts President Duda’s preliminary assessment that this explosion was most likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile that unfortunately landed in Poland,” the White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Wednesday. “We have full confidence in the Polish government’s investigation of the explosion near their border with Ukraine, and we commend them for the professional and deliberate manner in which they are conducting it. We will not get ahead of their work and remain in close touch with our Polish counterparts, as we are still gathering information.”

The risk of collective response and potential retaliatory action seemed to hang in the balance Tuesday, as Poland’s Prime Minister called an emergency security meeting, Poland raised its military readiness, and President Joe Biden and other world leaders gathered in an emergency unplanned meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit Tuesday. Zelensky’s repeated assertion Ukraine was not responsible could cast a shadow of doubt over the relatively cool heads that appear to have emerged after the NATO clarification that the incident was “likely” caused by Ukrainian air defenses.

So far, though, other western leaders appear to be sticking to the NATO narrative. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that Ukrainian rockets hit Poland, in what appears to be another contradiction to Zelensky’s claim.

“Yesterday, Russia launched a massive missile attack. The Ukrainians, defending themselves, launched rockets and one of them unfortunately fell on the territory of the Republic of Poland,” Morawiecki said, according to a translation from Poland’s Law and Justice Party.

And Zelensky has acknowledged that evidence could still emerge that points towards Ukrainian military defenses. “I want us to be fair and if it was the use of our air defense, then I want this evidence,” Zelensky said, according to NEXTA.

If Ukrainian air defenses indeed led to the incident in Poland, it is important to remember that the reason Ukraine used air defenses is because of Russia’s missile attacks against Ukraine Tuesday, Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, told The Daily Beast Wednesday.

“You don’t have an errant air defense missile landing on Poland unless offensive Russian missiles are attacking Ukraine, so there’s no doubt that Russia bears responsibility,” Daalder said. “If there wasn’t a war that Russia started, we wouldn’t be in this whole conversation.”

NATO tends to agree that Russia is responsible at the heart of this incident. Although the “preliminary” investigation so far indicates Ukraine, “Russia bears ultimate responsibility,” Stoltenberg said. “This is not Ukraine’s fault.”

The Polish prime minister reiterated Wednesday that Russia should bear ultimate responsibility, even if Ukrainian air defenses were actually behind the incident.

“Although we do not know the exact causes of the Przewodów tragedy, we do know the main cause: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” he said.

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