NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that a deadly explosion in Poland was probably the result of Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire, but that Russia bears “ultimate responsibility” since Moscow is behind the war.
Two people were killed in the blast on Tuesday in Poland’s east, near the border with Ukraine, in an incident that fuelled concerns of an escalation.
“An investigation into this incident is ongoing, and we need to await its outcome … But we have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack,” Stoltenberg said after chairing a meeting of NATO ambassadors.
“Our preliminary analysis suggests that the incident was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks.
“But let me be clear, this is not Ukraine’s fault,” he continued. “Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg called the meeting of the alliance’s envoys in Brussels.
The UN Security Council also planned to meet on Wednesday for a previously scheduled briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The blast in Poland was certain to be raised.
Meanwhile, Poland confirmed early Wednesday that a missile fell in the country’s east, as US President Joe Biden said it was “unlikely” it was fired from Russia.
In their statements, Poland and NATO used language that suggested they were not treating the missile blast as an intentional Russian attack, at least for now.
A NATO statement called it a “tragic incident”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially decried the explosion as “a very significant escalation” and prompted Biden to call an emergency meeting of G7 and NATO leaders.
A deliberate, hostile attack on NATO member Poland could trigger a collective military response by the alliance.
But questions around the rocket remained, especially since the incident came during a blistering series of Russian missile attacks across the nearby border in Ukraine, none larger than who fired it.
Russia denied any involvement in the Poland blast and summoned the Polish chargé d’affaires.
Preliminary assessments suggest the missile was launched by Kyiv’s forces at an incoming Russian one in the crushing salvo against Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure Tuesday.
That assessment and Biden’s comments at the G20 summit in Bali contradict information earlier Tuesday that Russian missiles crossed into Poland.
Soon after the blast, a statement from the Polish foreign ministry identified the weapon as being made in Russia. President Andrzej Duda was more cautious, saying that it was “most probably” Russian-made, but that its origins were still being verified.
By Wednesday, he changed track altogether, saying the rocket was likely part of Ukraine’s defence mechanism.
The Kremlin accused some Western countries, especially Poland, of reacting “hysterically”, but praised Biden for showing restraint.
“We have witnessed another hysterical, frenzied Russophobic reaction, which was not based on any real data,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
“I want to invite you to pay attention to the rather restrained reaction of the Americans, which contrasted with the absolutely hysterical reaction of the Polish side and a number of other countries,” he said.
The Russian defence ministry claimed the photos of the wreckage published on Tuesday evening were “unequivocally identified by Russian defence industry specialists as elements of an anti-aircraft guided missile of the S-300 air defence system of the Ukrainian air force.”
Still, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday also said Russia “bears ultimate responsibility” for the incident, while adding the Biden administration has “full confidence” in Poland’s investigation.
For his part, Zelenskyy said he believed Tuesday’s explosion was caused by a Russian missile, adding that he based his conclusions on reports from Ukraine’s military which he “cannot but trust”.
“I have no doubt that it was not our missile,” he said, according to Interfax Ukraine news agency.
He argued Ukraine should already have been given access to the site of the explosion. “Do we have the right to be in the investigation team? Of course,” he said.
Kyiv on Wednesday requested access to the site of the deadly blast.
“Ukraine requests immediate access to the site of the explosion,” the secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on Twitter.
He added that Ukraine has evidence of a “Russian trace” in the explosion, without giving any details.
Danilov said Ukraine wanted a joint study of Tuesday’s incident with its partners and to see the information that provided the basis for its allies’ conclusions.
Kyiv is “completely open to a comprehensive study of the situation,” he wrote on the council’s official Facebook page.
Danilov echoed Zelenskyy in blaming Russia’s “missile terror”. He provided no details of what evidence he was citing when he referred to a “Russian trace” behind the incident.