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Two Polish citizens were killed by an alleged Russian missile that crashed in a Polish village. What takeaways does the incident offer about NATO’s readiness?
On Nov. 15, two Polish citizens died when a missile—a Soviet-era S-300 anti-aircraft missile—crashed on the village of Przewodów. Initially, news outlets from U.S., Canada and Europe reported that Russia had launched a missile as part of its heaviest offensive bombing operation that targeted Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure; however, the missile had wandered off course, striking Polish territory.
Upon hearing of the strike, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens’kyj said that this event marked “a very significant escalation” of the war. Consequentially, Poland called its national security council to an emergency meeting and initiated an investigation into the missile strike and raising its level of military preparedness.
Partaking in the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the key leaders of NATO, U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, condemned the alleged Russian attack, stating that Putin’s ongoing attempts to hammer Ukraine into submission continuously harms the stability and peace of Europe.
New evidence clarified that the missile wasn’t launched by Russia, but rather from a Ukrainian defence installation, as confirmed by Polish, American, and NATO defence and intelligence institutions. Supporting Poland’s declaration of the missile strike not resulting from a deliberate Russian attack, NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said that responsibility for the incident still laid on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The missile strike on Poland showcases the limitations and hindering effects of the ongoing Russian-Ukraine War on NATO and its eagerness to deter Russian aggression and defend “every inch of its members territory.” More specifically, it highlights the prospect for when, not if, NATO gets involved in the Russian-Ukraine war by demanding an immediate peace or countering Russian military escalation by stationing more battlegroups along its eastern flank or by intensifying its delivery of offensive weaponry and missile systems to Ukraine.
A constant concern throughout the Russian-Ukraine conflict has been the fear of the “spillover effect” that would see Russia target NATO members occupying the Alliance’s eastern flank. In particular, NATO’s Eastern European members worry that due to their direct routes into Ukraine – critical for supplying Ukrainian military personnel with weapons, equipment, and other logistic resources and capabilities, along with being former Soviet possessions – Putin may target them to deter further aid to Ukraine and may take steps to reacquire former territory that belonged to the Soviet and Russian empires.
This fear is legitimate for NATO members who border the eastern and northern flanks and who share common ethnic and linguistic histories and critical economic and energy infrastructure with Russia. In September, two Russian natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea were rattled by undersea explosions. According to Baltic and Northern NATO members, Denmark, Sweden and Latvia, there is significant evidence that points to Russia potentially sabotaging its pipeline to wreak havoc on Europe’s energy market as winter approaches. It is clear that Putin will stoop to any level to deter and prohibit NATO members from aiding Ukraine in its attempt to defend itself and regain the territory that Russia annexed.
To ensure that NATO is prepared and capable of defending and deterring any form of belligerent attack from Russia, the Alliance must learn from the strike in Poland by taking action in three key fields of operation:
- NATO must ensure that its major members, the U.S., France, the U.K., and Germany, have direct and uninterrupted channels of communication with Vladimir Putin to avoid military escalation while also having an open dialogue for when incidents, like the missile strike in Poland, occur to circumvent miscalculation. It is worrisome that when the U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to connect with his Russian counterpart to discuss the aftermath of the missile strike in Poland, his call was unable to get through. History shows that established channels of communication between potential adversaries, who also possess nuclear capabilities, negate the need for escalating military tensions by offering impromptu understandings and acknowledgment of diplomatic redlines—the Cuban Missile Crisis is an evident example in this scenario.
- NATO must continue to provide resources that will expand intra-alliance interoperability for defense, political, and intelligence sharing. NATO is, first and foremost, a military and political alliance of varying transatlantic states. As such, the Alliance must have the resources and assets to collectively gather, analyze and synthesize data and evidence to produce a joint response to future incidents like this. Avoiding unilateral declarations or decision-making is key to refraining from misjudgments that can cloud or accentuate a response. Specifically for NATO’s eastern flank members, their history, political and military experience with Russian aggression, and their close geographical proximity to Russia, can intensify their call for NATO to enact Articles IV & V in response to any form of belligerence arriving from Eastern Europe.
- NATO must determine if the time has arrived to authorize air-defense systems, like the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, on its eastern flank to target and destroy any inbound missiles over its territory, regardless of the missile being launched by Russia or Ukraine. Whether NATO members, or its leaders, like it or not, incidents like the missile strike in Poland are weak links in the Alliance’s defensive posture. A lack of proportional military response risks elevating future ‘strength tests’ by a prolonged and increasingly perceived armed conflict that will settle Russia’s and Ukraine’s geopolitical and defensive position in the European geo-security architecture.