Incidents are not usually how big wars get bigger. But the threat of brutal escalation has hung tightly over Russia’s disastrous and brutal invasion of Ukraine almost from the start, and Tuesday’s missile explosion in Poland brought that possibility to the fore.
It now appears that this was not a Russian act, intentional or unintentional, but more likely a Ukrainian attempt to intercept a Russian missile that went awry. Ultimately, however, it is perhaps a horrific side effect that Ukraine will have to defend itself from wave after wave of Russian missile attacks targeting its own people and civilian infrastructure.
Poland has now backed away from invoking discussions under NATO’s Article 4, which would have led to further deliberations on how to defend itself. But where does this brief moment of panic leave NATO and its role as the main supporter and financier of Ukraine’s ruthless and bloody defense of its territory from Russian aggression?
Polish President Andrzej Duda said that this “may have been an accident” by Ukrainian air defenses reduces the likelihood of NATO’s immediate response at all. The debris may help support suggestions that the missile came from a Russian-made S-300 air defense system operated by the Ukrainians. But in the end, finding this incident to be an accident is the best outcome for all parties. It also provides an easy moment for NATO to bolster Ukraine’s air defenses, perhaps with systems that might not accidentally strike its own member states.
Above all, this would have been an unlikely moment for Russia to seek to escalate into an all-out conflict with NATO, the largest military alliance in human history.
Russia is losing against the smaller but better organized Armed Forces of Ukraine on various front lines. They are voluntarily withdrawing from the regions that they have just declared part of the Russian lands. They are sending prisoners and conscripts to the front lines and digging up crude old defenses before a potentially frigid winter. They are in a horrible place. Yes, an indiscriminate attack on Poland could have distracted from the narrative of Russian defeat that resulted from their collapse in the key city of Kherson, but it would have been a devastatingly shortsighted move likely to lead to the further degradation of Russia’s armed forces through NATO.
But we are still in a precarious place where proximity to NATO, the largest land war in Europe since the 1940s, is significant. A lot can go wrong, and the laws of physics ultimately suggest that it very well might.
Poland will likely respond to this incident by increasing its air defenses. Germany has already offered to help patrol its airspace. Deterrence is a powerful force and something Russia, despite its clamor, is fully aware of. But more planes and more air defense missiles in this frantic region increases the chances of more accidents. Russian-backed separatists shot down civilian airliner MH17 in an apparent mistake, but that did not make the loss of life palatable or mitigate the Western response.
Moscow is also in a desperate strategic position. It may not make them more inclined to impulsive behavior, but it does reduce their general space to mitigate—to apologize or accept a mistake if one happens.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was busy on Wednesday discussing the auto industry and avoided giving a public explanation why Kherson should pull out. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pressured. With hardliners questioning his conduct in this disastrous war of choice, he no longer had domestic scope to back down from confrontation with NATO, and it was another mistake or accident to initiate a confrontation with NATO. Russian state rhetoric is already framing this fight as Moscow’s fight against the entire NATO alliance. It’s hard to undo a fight you already claim to be in.
So the explosion in Poland is another sign of the slow escalation of this war. Glacial perhaps, but these small moves—from threats to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, to a Nord Stream pipeline explosion, to a fatal explosion at a Polish grain plant—undermine the sense of the impossible, and spawn a new set of benchmarks. They are making the clock tick louder when this war ends, when Ukraine’s supporters want it to end.
Moscow is clearly prepared to endure enormous amounts of pain, defeat, and embarrassment before calling an end to this disastrous campaign. This puts the moment of their defeat or retreat further into the distance and opens up a larger period of time in which more military equipment in dangerous and violent places can lead to more mistakes.