Accidents are not usually how big wars get bigger. But the threat of wild escalation has heavily hung over Russia’s blundering and brutal invasion of Ukraine almost since the beginning, and Tuesday’s rocket blast in Poland brought that possibility reeling to the fore.
It now appears that this was not an act of Russia, deliberate or otherwise, but instead likely a Ukrainian attempt to intercept a Russian missile gone awry. Ultimately, however, it is perhaps a chilling side-effect of Ukraine having to defend itself from wave after wave of Russian missile attacks targeting its people and civilian infrastructure.
Poland has now backed away from invoking discussions under NATO’s Article 4, in which it would have triggered further consultations about how to defend itself. But where does this brief moment of panic leave NATO and its role as the main backer and bankroller of Ukraine’s hard and bloody defense of its territory from Russian aggression?
That Polish president Andrzej Duda has said this was “probably an accident” by Ukraine’s air defenses reduces the likelihood of an immediate NATO response at all. Wreckage may help back up suggestions that the missile came from a Russian-made S-300 air defense system operated by the Ukrainians. But ultimately, finding this incident to be an accident is the best outcome for all parties. It provides an easy moment too for NATO to bolster Ukraine’s air defenses, perhaps with systems that might not accidentally hit its member states.
Above all, it would have been an unlikely moment for Russia to seek to escalate into a full-blown conflict with NATO, the largest military alliance in human history.
Russia is losing against Ukraine’s smaller but better organized armed forces on various of front lines. They are withdrawing voluntarily from areas they have just falsely declared as part of Russian territory. They are sending prisoners and forced conscripts to the frontline and digging old, crude defenses ahead of a likely harsh winter. They are in an appalling place. Yes, a random attack on Poland would have distracted from the narrative of Russian defeat spun by their collapse in the key city of Kherson, but it would have been a devastatingly short-sighted move likely to result in the further degradation of Russia’s armed forces by NATO.
But we remain in a perilous place where the proximity to NATO of this largest land war in Europe since the 1940s is writ large. So much could go wrong, and the laws of physics suggest eventually it might well do so.
Poland will likely have to respond to this incident by increasing its air defences. Germany has already offered to help patrol its airspace. Deterrents are a powerful force and something Russia is acutely aware of, despite its bluster. But more planes and more air defense missiles in this febrile area just increase the chances that more accidents can happen. Russian-backed separatists shot down the civilian airliner MH17 in an apparent error, but that did not make the loss of life palatable or soften the Western response.
Moscow is also in a desperate place strategically. That may not make them more inclined to rash behavior, but it does reduce their public space to deescalate – to apologize or accept an error if one occurs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was busy Wednesday discussing the auto industry and avoiding a public explanation of why the Kherson withdrawal was necessary. But it does not mean he is not feeling the pressure. With hardliners questioning his conduct of this disastrous war of choice, he has little room domestically to climb down from a confrontation with NATO, were another error or incident to initiate one. Russian state rhetoric already frames this fight as Moscow’s against the entire NATO alliance. It is harder to back away from a fight you claim you are already in.
So the blast in Poland is yet another sign of the slow escalation of this war. Glacial perhaps, but these tiny movements – from threats to Ukraine’s nuclear power stations, to the Nord Stream pipeline explosion, to a blast fatally hitting a Polish grain factory – erode the sense of what is impossible, and generate a new series of norms. They make the clock tick louder over when this war may end, and when Ukraine’s backers will want it to end.
It is clear that Moscow is willing to endure huge amounts of pain, defeat and embarrassment before calling an end to this disastrous campaign. That puts the moment of their defeat or withdrawal further off in the distance and opens up a larger period of time in which more military hardware in dangerous, violent places can result in more mistakes.