• Will Kingston-Cox

On the brink: Stray missiles risk direct confrontation with Russia

By WILL KINGSTON-COX


On Tuesday 15 November, a stray missile struck the Polish village of Przewodów, a few miles from the Ukrainian border, in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared “a very significant escalation” which left two dead. The whole world watched on with bated breath as investigators quickly sought to determine the origin of the missile strike. Had it been a deliberate act of aggression by the Kremlin on Poland, a NATO member? If so, the potential for Article 5 of the NATO treaty to be triggered, kickstarting a collective military response against Russia and the genesis of what could only be reasonably described as a third world war, was unprecedentedly high.


However, bated breath can, for now, turn to a collective sigh of relief. Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, has described the strike as an “unfortunate accident” which “was not an attack on Poland”. US intelligence currently suggests that the missile – a Soviet-era S-300 air defence 5V55 missile – was fired by Ukrainian armed forces to intercept an onslaught of Russian bombardment faced on Tuesday.


Defence specialists at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) believe the missile could have either been fired defensively by the Ukrainians, or offensively as a crude ballistic missile, as Russia has in recent months. Dr Justin Bronk of RUSI holds that “either way, [the strike] would appear accidental.”


Accidental or not, this has not deterred world leaders such as Zelenskyy and Rishi Sunak from attributing blame directly to Moscow. In his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, Zelenskyy stated that “Russian missiles hit Poland” with his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, calling US suggestions that the missile was fired by Ukrainian air defence a “conspiracy theory”. The British Prime Minister said Ukraine cannot be blamed, even if the missile was fired by Ukrainian forces, for it is being compelled to use missiles to “defend its homeland”.


In the West’s view, by implication of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin bears ultimate responsibility, even if striking Polish territory was utterly unintentional on Moscow’s part. This view is the de facto position of NATO, with secretary general Jens Stoltenberg stating the strike “would not have happened if Russia did not fire these missiles [earlier last Tuesday]”. Tensions escalated forthwith.


In the immediate aftermath of the missile strike in Przewodów, Poland commenced an initial bid to invoke Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which would compel all member states of the alliance to “consult together whenever...the territorial integrity, political independence or security” of a member is threatened. Warsaw may have subsequently dropped its bid, but the events at Przewodów should serve as a stark reminder of just how easily a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO could materialise.


Unfortunately, whilst the threat of direct escalation has dissipated for now, a humiliated Kremlin is only too likely to continue its barrage of missile strikes against Ukraine, increasing the likelihood of strays entering neighbouring NATO states. Moscow’s authorisation of Tuesday’s missile bombardment across Ukraine came in direct response to the liberation of Kherson, the only regional capital captured since the invasion, which is becoming an all-too-common retaliatory approach.


Ukraine does appear to be turning the tide of war in their favour convincingly. But Putin has a track record for lashing out with long-range missile barrages to compensate for losses on the battlefield since February. As Ukraine continues to inflict humiliating defeats upon his ‘special military operation’, it is wholly reasonable to assume Moscow will retaliate with indiscriminate strafe. All it will take is one rogue missile entering NATO territory, presumed rightly or wrongly to be an intentional strike, to bring the alliance into direct confrontation with Russia. Triggering Article 5 invariably warrants some form of retaliatory response.


How Ukraine and the West combat this troublesome paradox remains to be seen. Real caution must be taken by policymakers in Kyiv and Washington not to ‘poke the Russian bear’ into a position in which chaotic strafing, risking unintentional but real confrontation, seems to be Moscow’s only viable response. Focus should now be solely on seeking peaceful resolutions, for nobody wins in a scenario where Russia draws itself into direct confrontation with NATO.


For now, we remain on the brink.


Image: Flickr/ President of Ukraine

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