The hypothesis that a missile that hit Poland on Tuesday was fired from a Ukrainian air defense system is gaining more and more credibility. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday it is “very likely” that the explosion in the village of Przewodów, 3.7 miles (six kilometers) from the Ukrainian border and in which two people were killed, was caused by shells from an anti-aircraft system deployed by Kiev. The ordnance would have been “fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks,” Stoltenberg added. Moscow on Tuesday carried out the most intense wave of air strikes against Ukraine since the beginning of the war, targeting mainly critical energy infrastructure in what can be interpreted as retaliation for the recapture of the key strategic city of Kherson by Ukrainian forces and the withdrawal of Russian forces to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Stoltenberg’s conclusion, pending a more exhaustive NATO investigation, concurs with those of other alliance members including Poland and the United States, which pointed to conclusions based on “preliminary information.” The secretary general added NATO has no indication that the missile strike was a deliberate attack on Moscow’s part or that the Kremlin has any plans to launch military actions against an alliance member amid international disquiet over Tuesday’s incident.
“But let me be clear. This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility, as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said after a North Atlantic Council meeting convened in Brussels to address the explosion in Poland. “Russia bears responsibility for what happened in Poland yesterday because this is a direct result of the ongoing war and the wave of attacks from Russia against Ukraine yesterday. And of course, Ukraine has the right to shoot down those missiles that are targeting Ukrainian citizens and critical Ukrainian infrastructure.”
Hours before the meeting in Brussels, Stoltenberg and Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose government has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters since the Russian invasion began, both stated their belief that the missile that hit Przewodów was launched by Ukrainian forces in the face of the Russian bombardment. “Ukraine defended itself, which is obvious and understandable, by firing missiles whose task was to knock down Russian missile,” Duda said. “The Russian side is to blame for this tragic event.”
Duda went on to say the system that was probably used by Ukrainian air defense batteries was an old Soviet S-300, which is part of Ukraine’s current arsenal. On Tuesday night, shortly after the missile struck, the Polish Foreign Ministry stated it was of “Russian manufacture” without clarifying who had fired it or from where.
Although the Russian ambassador to Warsaw was summoned, Duda has stressed that the incident does not provide sufficient grounds to invoke Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
Ukraine initially denied that one of its missiles was involved, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accusing Moscow of an “escalation,” but on Wednesday Kyiv said it was “waiting for information” from its Western allies about the findings of the investigation and had requested access to the site of the explosion. Many questions remain, such as the trajectory of the Russian missile shot down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft batteries. Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder said that pieces of a Russian missile and those used by Ukraine to intercept them had fallen on Poland. “Everything remains to be confirmed by the ongoing investigations,” she added.
Prudence in Washington
Preliminary US findings point in the same direction. President Joe Biden has indicated that he considers it “unlikely” that the missile that hit Polish territory was fired from Russia. Asked about allegations linking Moscow to the attack, the president said: “There is preliminary information that contests that. It is unlikely in the lines of the trajectory that it was fired from Russia, but we’ll see.”
Biden was speaking after an emergency meeting to discuss the matter with the leaders of NATO countries present at the G20 summit in Indonesia, as well as the prime minister of Japan and representatives of the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that Washington had shared preliminary results of the investigation, although he did not go into detail and urged prudence. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also advised against drawing “hasty conclusions.”
The tone of reactions from NATO, the United States and Poland – whose government spoke with Biden on Tuesday night – is designed to serve two purposes: to show unbreakable unity and transmit calm with the intention of avoiding an escalation, which has been one of the primary concerns of the NATO allies since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
“We agreed to support Poland’s investigation into the explosion in rural Poland, near the Ukrainian border. And I’m going to make sure we figure out exactly what happened,” Biden said. “And then we’re going to collectively determine our next step as we investigate and proceed. There was total unanimity among the folks at the table.”
A joint statement of NATO and G7 leaders condemned the “barbaric” missile attacks launched by Russia on Tuesday. “We reaffirm our steadfast support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the face of ongoing Russian aggression, as well as our continued readiness to hold Russia accountable for its brazen attacks on Ukrainian communities, even as the G20 meets to deal with the wider impacts of the war,” the statement read.
G20: “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”
The G20 countries also issued a statement after the meeting in Bali, calling for “international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability” to be maintained. “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible,” the communiqué continued. “The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.”
Putin elected not to attend the G20 summit, the first meeting of the group since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine in February. Moscow was represented by its foreign minister, the veteran Sergei Lavrov, who left at the end of the first day as news of the latest Russian strikes on Ukraine began to emerge.
Zelenskiy spoke to the gathered leaders in a video call on the first day of the summit, before the latest wave of missile attacks against his country, to lay out what he defined as his “vision of the path towards peace.” The Ukrainian leader insisted on the restoration of his country’s full territorial integrity – “This is not subject for negotiation” – the establishment of a special court to try Russian war crimes and a mechanism to proceed with reparations on the basis of Russian assets. He also called for an international agreement to provide Ukraine with security guarantees.