US and NATO investigate blast in Poland that killed 2; Biden says missile unlikely to have been fired from Russia
Editor's note: This page recaps the news on Ukraine and Poland from Tuesday, Nov. 15. Follow here for the latest news on the missile that hit in Poland and more from Ukraine.
A missile that landed in Poland and killed two people is unlikely to have been fired from Russia, President Joe Biden late Tuesday.
"It’s unlikely [from the lines] of trajectory that it was fired from Russia,” Biden said of the missile strike. But he warned that more investigation is needed.
The U.S. government and its NATO allies have been proceeding with caution amid reports that a Russian missile crossed into alliance member Poland and struck a grain facility near the border of Ukraine on Tuesday.
A statement from the Polish Foreign Ministry identified the missile as being made in Russia, but Polish President Andrzej Duda was more measured, saying it “most probably” was Russian but that officials still can't confirm that or who fired it.
"We do not have any conclusive evidence at the moment as to who launched this missile," Poland's President Andrzej Duda told reporters. "It was most likely a Russian-made missile, but this is all still under investigation at the moment.”
He added: "We are acting with calm. This is a difficult situation.”
A U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said late Tuesday that the circumstances are complex and at this point the U.S. cannot rule out the possibility that the deadly missile - or parts of it - may have come from a Ukrainian intercept missile that was attempting to halt an incoming Russian strike.
Intercept missiles attempt to throw off oncoming missiles by destroying them directly or by causing them to go off course and miss their targets. The missile that hit Poland could have been an intercept missile fired by Ukraine in defense of the Russian air assault, or it could have been a Russian missile that was deflected by the Ukrainian interceptor, the official told USA TODAY.
Biden expressed his condolences, offered assistance with Poland's investigation and reaffirmed the U.S.'s "ironclad commitment" to NATO, the White House said.
“We agreed to support Poland’s investigation into the explosion in rural Poland near the Ukrainian border,” Biden said Tuesday night after a roundtable with world leaders in Bali, Indonesia. “We’re going to make sure we figure out exactly what happened. Then we're gonna collectively determine our next step as we investigate and proceed.”
The missile strike comes as Biden and leaders of the world's largest economies have gathered in Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 summit. Biden has been pushing world leaders to take a harder line against Russia, including enforcing a price cap on Russian oil and gas.
Polish media reported the two people were killed in the village of Przewodów, in the southeastern part of the country, about 15 miles from the Ukrainian border.
It remains officially unclear whether the missiles accidentally strayed into Poland or whether the country was deliberated targeted. If confirmed, the strikes would mark the first time missiles have crossed into a NATO country during Russia's war against Ukraine.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty says an attack against a member of the alliance is regarded as an attack on all.
"#NATO is monitoring the situation and Allies are closely consulting,'' tweeted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who called an emergency meeting of the alliance’s envoys. "Important that all facts are established.''
The Russian Defense Ministry denied being behind “any strikes on targets near the Ukrainian-Polish border” and said in a statement that photos of purported damage “have nothing to do” with Russian weapons.
The missile reportedly entered Poland as Russia pounded Ukraine’s energy facilities with its biggest barrage of missiles yet, striking targets across the country and causing widespread blackouts.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said top leaders were holding an emergency meeting because of a "crisis situation" but did not specify what it was.
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy called the missile strike as “a very significant escalation” of the war, and he was defiant in the face of Russia causing widespread blackouts with renewed attacks on energy facilities from east to west.
"We're working, will restore everything. We will survive everything," Zelenskyy said as he shook his fist.
Zelenskyy said Russia fired at least 85 missiles, "most of them at our energy infrastructure," and shut down power in many cities.
Ukraine's energy minister said the attack was "the most massive" bombardment of power facilities in the nearly 9-month-old Russian invasion, striking both power generation and transmission systems.
Whose missile is it and how much will it matter?
It’s possible a Russian missile went astray by mistake and veered into Poland, said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program and the Stuart Center in Euro-Atlantic and Northern European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We know that Russian missiles are not 100% accurate – in fact, it could be more like 50% actually hit their intended targets,” Bergmann told USA TODAY.
But it’s also possible that a Ukrainian air-defense missile fired to try to stop a Russian missile veered off course into Poland, he said.
“In some ways, it doesn't matter,” Bergmann said. “The deaths of these two Polish citizens were caused by Russia – if you are Ukraine, and you're defending yourself by shooting anti-air missiles, it is Russia that is the cause of why you have fired that missile. So I think no matter whose missile it was, it is clear that Russia is the instigating party here.”
Bergmann, who was special assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security during the Obama administration, said it’s unlikely NATO’s joint defense clause, Article 5, will be invoked.
But he said the incident could prompt the invocation of Article 4, which covers when a member state is under threat – in this case, Poland. If that happens, alliance members meet and decide on a response.
“That could be a military response, or limited military response, perhaps,” Bergmann said. “Or it could lead to more aid for Ukraine in terms of increasing what the alliance, certain types of weapons systems that perhaps the countries have been reluctant to provide.”
With reports of Russian missiles hitting Poland, there are questions about when – and if – it could trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which calls for the collective defense that NATO members swear to provide for one another.
Already, the United States and NATO member countries have taken steps to beat back Russia’s military aggression against its weaker neighbor, Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. That includes providing Ukraine with weapons, technology and humanitarian assistance and imposing sanctions on Russia and President Vladimir Putin personally.
But NATO has gone out of its way not to intervene militarily in Russia’s war in Ukraine, or to even risk such a direct confrontation.
If the reports are confirmed that Russian missiles struck NATO ally Poland, it could trigger the collective defense principle, which “is at the very heart" of NATO’s founding treaty, the alliance says on its website homepage.
Collective defense means that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.
– Josh Meyer
Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on NATO ambassadors in Brussels to immediately examine the situation in Poland.
He added it might not have been intentional by Russia to strike Poland, a NATO ally.
“As we wait for more information on the situation, I have to believe that any strike into Poland had to be a mistake by Russia,” Menendez said in a statement. “If so, Putin should come out very quickly and say so. NATO Ambassadors in Brussels should meet immediately to examine the situation. Article 5 requires us to support our NATO allies.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she is focused on determining what happened and ensuring the United States coordinates with its NATO ally Poland.
Duckworth said the reports hat two died in Poland, if confirmed, are “extremely troubling” and her heart goes out to the victims, their families and the Polish community around the world.
“Vladimir Putin must be held accountable for his ongoing aggression in Ukraine, as his actions continue to take innocent lives,” Duckworth said. "At this hour, my focus is on ensuring we know all the facts and that our nation does everything we can to immediately coordinate with Poland to determine how we can support our NATO ally.”
– Donovan Slack
Some European officials are expressing condolences on social media but also signaling caution until more is known.
“My thoughts are with #Poland, our close ally and neighbor,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Twitter. “We are monitoring the situation closely and are in contact with our Polish friends and NATO allies.”
“All our solidarity to Poland and the Polish people, and our deepest sympathy to the families of today’s tragic event,” said Iratxe Garcia Perez, member and progressive leader of the European Parliament. “Now it’s time for calm and restraint, but one thing is clear: Russia must stop its war against Ukraine.”
– Donovan Slack
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder declined to comment in detail about the reports, saying the Defense Department is investigating the matter and trying to get more information.
“I'm not going to get into hypotheticals or speculate,” Ryder told reporters. “As I mentioned, we have no information right now to corroborate that there has been a missile strike. Again, we're looking into it. As you know, we have a wide variety of means at our disposal to verify information. And so when we have something to provide, we will.”
Asked whether he thought it might be an incident that would trigger NATO Article 5, Ryder said, “Again, as I'm sure you can appreciate, I'm not going to gonna speculate about potential ifs and thens. I'm going to deal with facts. And so let's get the facts and then we'll go from there.”
Ryder did say he believes the U.S. government is confident in its force posture in Poland and the U.S. troops stationed there.
“When it comes to force protection, we always take the safety and security of our troops no matter where they're serving very seriously. And so we're very confident in any force protection measures that we take, whether it be Poland or elsewhere,” Ryder said. “But again, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves here. We're going to get the facts. And when we have more to provide, we will. Thank you.”
Experts on Tuesday said the missile reports did not come as a surprise.
“Given the ferocity with which Russia has been raining down missiles across Ukraine in recent weeks, this incident, while hardly inevitable, is scarcely surprising considering that Poland adjoins Ukraine,” said Rajan Menon, a specialist at Defense Priorities, a think tank that promotes restraint.
Menon, a researcher at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, noted that Lviv, a major city in Ukraine is about 40 miles from the Polish border. He said in a statement that the incident does not mean NATO’s Article 5, the mutual defense clause between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is automatically invoked. Rather, each member has leeway to “take such actions it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”
“The Article does not put them on autopilot or rob them of agency,” Menon said. “This does not mean that the Russian missile strike in Poland isn’t a serious incident. It is and brings home in a visceral manner how a prolonged war in Ukraine could lead to an incident which, while it may have been unintended, could nevertheless set a conflict spiral in motion.”
He said the episode underscores why it’s important for the United States and Russia to keep in close contact, no matter how frayed the relationship.
– Donovan Slack
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, advised caution.
“We need to find out all the facts most urgently – was this deliberate or was this accidental – before we rush to a judgment,” he told MSNBC on Tuesday.
“I think it vindicates President Biden's approach, Secretary Blinken, and Jake Sullivan’s approach that we need to still have conversations with the Russian counterparts on de-escalating the conflict, ensuring that the conflict doesn't lead to a nuclear war… but you should have no doubt that the United States with Article Five will defend NATO allies. If this turns out to be accidental, then there has to be some consequences still, and we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to de escalate.”
– Ledge King
Contributing: The Associated Press