At approximately 1 pm EST yesterday, reports emerged that a pair of rockets had slammed into a quiet farming town in Poland. The tragic blast killed two locals, marking the first time that the war in Ukraine bled over into NATO territory.
Western officials now widely agree that the Russian-made S-300 rockets were launched by Ukrainian forces as part of their ongoing effort to counter Russia’s attacks on their infrastructure. But that conclusion came after a long day of finger-pointing, with many leaders in politics and media using the blast as an opportunity to condemn Moscow and call for a swift response, up to and including the invocation of NATO’s collective defense pledge.
To put it more bluntly, a lot of people spent yesterday calling for war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
The incident gives a unique glimpse into how moments of crisis, which are often marked by limited information and strong emotions, create the conditions for rapid escalation, according to George Beebe of the Quincy Institute.
“We're all walking close to the edge of a disaster, and the United States should not be confident that we won't be pushed over that edge by forces we can't control,” said Beebe, who previously led the CIA’s Russia Analysis Group.
In order to better understand this dynamic, it is helpful to take a closer look at yesterday’s events.
The first indication that something had gone wrong in Poland came at 12:38 pm EST, when Reuters reported that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had called an emergency meeting of his national security team. Shortly after 1 pm, a flurry of Polish media outlets revealed that the rockets were the reason for the emergency gathering.
The first images of the blast quickly started to emerge, prompting some analysts to point out that the debris looked an awful lot like an S-300 rocket, part of a Soviet-era missile defense system that Kyiv continues to use today.
But at 2 pm, just as it had started to become clear that Russia was an unlikely culprit, AP News published a one-sentence, one-source story that would prove remarkably consequential: “A senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people.”
Within minutes, prominent media personalities had already started to call on NATO to invoke Article V, which mandates that member states meet to determine a collective response whenever one of them is attacked. (It is worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, Article V does not prescribe a rapid response, and Congress would likely have to approve such a move.)
At 2:10 pm, Nika Melkozerova, a Ukrainian journalist with a significant following in the West, tweeted “So.. article 5?” Melkozerova softened her comment 20 minutes later, calling on concerned parties to “wait for official information.”
But Lesia Vasylenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, had no such compunction. The lawmaker simply tweeted out the phrase “Article 5” at 2:29 pm, adding later that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “testing the limits” with the strikes and that “reaction=appeasement.”
Paul Massaro, a prominent American supporter of Ukraine and member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said around the same time that “Russian terrorism” had reached Poland, adding shortly after that it was “[h]ard to believe this was an accident.”
Some NATO leaders seemed to follow in Massaro and Vasylenko’s footsteps. “Very concerned by Russian missiles dropping in Poland,” tweeted Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad at 2:46 pm. “Will be in close contact with [NATO allies] to coordinate [a] response.”
A “senior European diplomat” echoed Nad in a Politico piece, saying that it was “appalling to see a desperate regime attacking critical infrastructure of Ukraine and hitting allied territory with victims.” (The diplomat did hedge by noting that the author of the attack was not yet confirmed.)
The Pentagon’s spokesman had the misfortune of having already scheduled a press conference for 2 pm, when little was known about the blast. “I don’t want to speculate when it comes to our security commitments and Article 5,” Patrick Ryder said, noting that he could not confirm AP’s report. “But we have made it crystal clear that we will protect every inch of NATO territory.”
The boilerplate promise to defend “every inch of NATO territory” earned an outsized response.
Given Russia’s purported senseless attack on NATO, nothing less than the organization’s very credibility as a collective defense organization was at stake.
Or at least that is what Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council argued at around 3:30 pm. In a message aimed directly at President Joe Biden, Aslund said, “You have promised to defend ‘every inch of NATO territory.’ Are you going to bomb Russia now?” He added that Biden’s first move should be to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine before “clean[ing] out the Russian Black Sea fleet.”
At the same time, Sergej Sumlenny, a prominent European policy expert, implied in a viral tweet that the attack was an intentional extension of Russia’s assault on Ukrainian infrastructure.
Shortly after, Mykhailo Podolyak, one of the top advisors to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, declared that the strikes were “not an accident, but a deliberately planned ‘hello’ from [Russia], disguised as a ‘mistake.’”
Russia denied the claim, saying that “[n]o strikes on targets near the Ukrainian-Polish state border were made by Russian means of destruction.” But, somewhat understandably for many of Ukraine’s supporters, Russia’s word no longer holds much purchase.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded at 4:35 pm that Moscow “promotes a conspiracy theory that it was allegedly a missile of Ukrainian air defense” that hit Poland. “No one should buy Russian propaganda or amplify its messages,” Kuleba added. Around the same time, Zelensky tweeted that the “Russian attack on collective security in the Euro-Atlantic is a significant escalation” of the conflict.
Luckily, the Biden administration didn’t take the bait. Despite the sharp words from Kyiv, U.S. and Polish officials maintained that the origin of the missiles was unclear and insisted that they needed more time to investigate the incident. At 7 pm, Biden, who is currently in Bali for the G20 conference, offered “full support” for Warsaw’s investigation following a call with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Speculation and calls for escalation continued to run rampant as officials from across the West held emergency meetings. It took until nearly midnight for AP News to finally report that “[t]hree U.S. officials said preliminary assessments suggested the missile was fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian one amid the crushing salvo against Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure Tuesday.”
Even after this news emerged, Podolyak maintained that NATO should enact a no-fly zone in Ukraine, which would likely require Western pilots to fight their Russian counterparts directly, putting four nuclear-armed nations at war. Kyiv continues to deny that it fired the missiles.
This morning, Biden disputed Ukraine’s line, saying it was “unlikely” that the missiles came from Russia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also declared that there is “no indication this was the result of a deliberate attack” but added that Russia holds ultimate responsibility for the attack given Moscow’s invasion and continued attacks on Ukrainian cities.
The trajectory of events starting from the initial report about the missiles hitting inside Poland highlights the difference between U.S. and Ukrainian interests when it comes to direct NATO involvement in the conflict, according to Beebe.
“There is a clear divergence of interests on that score, and the Biden team was appropriately cautious about gathering the facts about what happened and not rushing to judgment about potential retaliation,” he said.
In the end, the voices calling for calm won out over their more hawkish counterparts. But the incident serves as a stark reminder that misinformation spreads fast in moments of crisis, which can result in dangerous escalation. This makes it all the more important that major outlets like AP News get the story right the first time, as journalist Ken Klippenstein argued on Twitter.
“This is why journalists are supposed to verify information before they report it,” Klippenstein wrote.
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
keep readingShow less
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
keep readingShow less
Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?