Accidents are usually not as big as wars get bigger. But the threat of a wild escalation hung over Russia’s clumsy and brutal invasion of Ukraine almost from the start, and Tuesday’s missile blast in Poland shook that possibility.
It now appears that this was not an act by Russia, intentional or not, but probably a Ukrainian attempt to intercept a failed Russian missile. Ultimately, though, perhaps as a chilling side effect, Ukraine must defend itself against wave after wave of Russian missile attacks targeting its people and civilian infrastructure.
Poland has now backed off from invoking NATO’s Article 4 discussions, in which it would have sparked further consultations on how to defend itself. But after this brief moment of panic, where is NATO and its role as the main backer and bankroller of Ukraine’s harsh and bloody defense of its territory against Russian aggression?
That Polish President Andrzej Duda said this was “probably an accident” by Ukraine’s air defenses reduces the likelihood of an immediate NATO response at all. Wreckage could help support the assumption that the missile came from a Russian-made S-300 air defense system operated by the Ukrainians. But ultimately, the best outcome for everyone involved is to treat this incident as an accident. It also offers NATO an easy moment to bolster Ukraine’s air defenses, perhaps with systems that won’t accidentally hit its member states.
Above all, it would have been an unlikely moment for Russia to escalate into a full-fledged conflict with NATO, the largest military alliance in human history.
Russia is losing on several front lines to Ukraine’s smaller but better organized armed forces. They are voluntarily withdrawing from areas they just mistakenly declared as Russian territory. They send prisoners and conscripts to the front lines, digging up old, crude defenses ahead of what is likely to be a harsh winter. You are in a terrible place. Yes, a random attack on Poland would have detracted from the story of Russian defeat created by their collapse in the key city of Kherson, but it would have been a devastatingly short-sighted move likely to have led to a further deterioration in Russia’s armed forces in NATO.
But we remain in a dangerous place where closeness to NATO is a priority in Europe’s biggest war of nations since the 1940s. So much could go wrong, and the laws of physics suggest that eventually it could.
Poland will likely have to respond to this incident by strengthening its air defenses. Germany has already offered to patrol its airspace. Deterrents are a powerful force and something Russia, despite its din, is well aware. But more planes and more anti-aircraft missiles in this fevered area only increases the likelihood that more accidents can happen. Russian-backed separatists shot down the MH17 civilian plane in an apparent error, but that didn’t make the loss of life palatable or soften the Western response.
Strategically, Moscow is also in a desperate place. That may not make them prone to rash behavior, but it limits their public space to de-escalate — to apologize or accept a mistake when one happens.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was busy on Wednesday discussing the auto industry and avoiding a public explanation of why the Kherson withdrawal was necessary. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel the pressure. With hardliners questioning his conduct in this disastrous election campaign, he has little leeway domestically to get out of a confrontation with NATO should another mistake or incident trigger one. Russian state rhetoric is already portraying this battle as Moscow’s battle against the entire NATO alliance. It’s harder to withdraw from a battle you claim you’re already in.
So the explosion in Poland is another sign of the slow escalation of this war. Freezing perhaps, but these tiny movements — from a threat to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants to a Nord Stream pipeline explosion to a deadly explosion at a Polish grain factory — are subverting a sense of the impossible and creating a new set of norms. They make the clock tick louder as to when this war could end and when Ukraine’s supporters want it to end.
It is clear that Moscow is ready to endure tremendous pain, defeat and embarrassment before ending this disastrous campaign. This pushes the moment of their defeat or retreat further away, and opens up a greater timeframe where more military hardware in dangerous, violent locations can lead to more failures.