Brussels, Belgium – Russia’s war in Ukraine jolted NATO this week when a missile exploded in a Polish village near the Ukrainian border, killing two people.
Immediately after Tuesday’s blast, Polish President Andrzej Duda said the explosive that hit Przewodow, a village of hundreds of people, was “most likely Russian-made” as an investigation was still ongoing.
His statement sent shockwaves across the world and NATO leaders expressed their will to defend every inch of territory in the world’s largest military alliance, of which Poland is a member.
Military analysts took to social media to suggest this could be a moment when the alliance would invoke Article 4, a consultation between NATO countries when one member feels threatened, or Article 5, when an attack is considered violence against the entire alliance, allowing NATO to decide on action it deems fit to protect its members.
The same day, Russia pummelled critical Ukrainian infrastructure with a wave of missile strikes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the explosion in Poland “a very significant escalation” and said, “We must act.”
But NATO and Western nations, including the United States, have since calmed fears suggesting the missile was a stray, likely part of Ukraine’s air defence systems. Nevertheless, they said Russia bears overall responsibility as the aggressor and instigator of the war.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has maintained a cautious stance throughout the episode and did not blame Russia as he waited for Polish intelligence.
A day after the explosion, Duda joined his Western allies to say the blast was probably a Ukrainian accident and did not invoke any NATO article.
Stoltenberg said a preliminary analysis suggests a Ukrainian air defence missile landed in Poland, having been fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks.
“But let me be clear, this is not Ukraine’s fault,” he said, stressing that Russia was still ultimately responsible.
Jim Townsend, US deputy assistant defence secretary for Europe and NATO under former President Barack Obama, welcomed NATO’s approach.
“I think NATO did a great job of being very deliberative and cautious by putting a story together based on facts,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think the US was like that too amid an environment where everything was very murky with a lot of conflicting information out there.”
“The conflicting information was mainly picked up by the press and it became a real frenzy,” he said.
Alexander Lanoszka, assistant professor of international relations at Canada’s University of Waterloo, told Al Jazeera the incident demonstrates that “NATO territory cannot be purely insulated from the air defence challenges that Ukraine faces”.
But a direct military intervention against Russia “is too risky”, he said, “because of states’ reasonable concerns about nuclear escalation. Nevertheless, they might let go of some of the hang-ups they have had about the provision of certain platforms to Ukraine”.
Had NATO concluded the missile was Russian and the blast was an intentional attack, the most likely response would have been “an increase of that military assistance”, Lanoszka said.
“Most likely with air defence but perhaps involving the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System surface-to-surface missiles that Ukraine has long been coveting,” he added.
Speaking from the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, US President Joe Biden said “it was unlikely” the missile was fired by Russia.
His restraint was lavished with rare praise by the Kremlin.
But Russia slammed some Western countries, especially Poland, over their initial responses.
“We have witnessed another hysterical, frenzied Russophobic reaction, which was not based on any real data,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The blast occurred a day before NATO was due to convene a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, in which participants would decide on future packages of military assistance.
“Whatever the actual course of events that led to the tragedy in that Polish village,” Lanoszka said, “it took place on a day when Russia launched a massive missile barrage across all of Ukraine.
“Whenever Russia has suffered a very visible loss on the battlefield, it has tended to retaliate by launching a major air attack against Ukrainian cities.
“Part of the strategy is to create a situation of terror that would have psychological effects on the Ukrainian population so that, as the theory goes, it would be more willing to accept Russian terms.”
Harry Nedelcu, geopolitics director at Rasmussen Global and leader of its Ukraine Advisory Service, also stressed that the incident happened on a day “when a string of Russian missiles hit several Ukrainian cities with an aim of terrorising civilians and targeting power grids. Ukraine, in turn, used its air defence systems. So whichever way you look at it, context matters.”
Townsend said that with Moscow’s intensified campaign, the West and NATO must focus on sending more air defence systems to Poland and countries bordering Russia and Ukraine.
“They may need some more Patriot [missile] systems or something along those lines because there could be other missiles down the road as the war continues,” he said. “Next time it might be a real Russian missile and we need to be ready for it.”
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Stoltenberg said the blast in Poland underscores the importance of strengthening the alliance’s eastern flank further and supporting Ukraine.
“At least in the winter weeks ahead, air defence systems will help Ukraine because already we see that the country’s air defence is managing to target a lot of Russian missiles,” Nedelcu said. “So now it’s just about closing that gap and making sure that Russian missiles do not hit their targets.”
Meanwhile, as NATO nations continue to support Poland with its investigation, Townsend said he hopes a sort of “future action report” detailing the entire process of the investigation and the pathway ahead will be made available.
“Pretty early on, NATO nations decided to stay prudent and cautious every step of the way whilst gathering evidence,” he told Al Jazeera. “The alliance did a good job in handling this crisis but a lot of lessons are also being learned as NATO wades through handling this war and supporting Ukraine.”
“So a study to look at what NATO did right and where more work needs to be done to prevent future incidents like this could be useful,” he said.
For now, Ukraine has requested access to the area where the missile landed, which Poland will likely grant.
As late as Tuesday evening, Zelenskyy maintained the missile was a “message from Russia to the G20 summit”.
Since Poland and other nations such as Latvia were quick to blame Russia, “this incident further reinforces Russia’s narrative of the West ‘pushing for World War III’,” Kamil Zwolski, associate professor of international politics at the University of Southampton, told Al Jazeera. “But Russia’s reaction was entirely predictable.”