Missile Hit in Poland Reminds NATO That War is Very Real

On Tuesday, a missile landed in the Polish farm town of Przewodow, just four miles from the border with Ukraine. Initially, as the missile hit within NATO territory, many were quick blame Russia for the fatal blast. Had what NATO members worked so hard to avoid finally happened? Was Russia launching an attack on a NATO country? Would NATO invoke Article 5, the treaty clause that forms the basis of the alliance?

What If…

What if Russia had expanded its war in Ukraine by targeting a NATO country? If Russia had targeted Poland, that could have risked drawing Poland’s NATO allies into the conflict, even as the alliance has worked hard to avoid direct military engagement with Russia. Immediately after the missile strike, Polish officials considered invoking Article 4 of the NATO charter, where members “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security” is threatened. If NATO allies determined that Russia hit Poland intentionally, the next step could have been invoking Article 5.

Cooler Heads Prevail

Instead, Poland and NATO reacted in a strategic and cautious manner, carefully reviewing the situation before blaming Russia without all the facts. On Wednesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda eased speculation, confirming that the missile strike appeared to be unintentional. He further noted it was “highly probable” that Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense launched the missile. “From the information we and our allies have, it was an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union, an old rocket, and there is no evidence that it was launched by the Russian side,” he said.

That day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after a meeting of the 30-nation alliance in Brussels, reaffirmed Poland’s conclusion. The most powerful member of the alliance, the United States, concurred with its NATO allies’ assessment, noting that the White House had “seen nothing that contradicts” Poland’s conclusion. Cooler heads prevailed, even as Russia hit Ukraine with the biggest missile attacks since the war began in late February, aiming to cripple Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as winter sets in.

War, What Is It Good For?

Neither Russia nor NATO want a war. While the NATO allies have provided significant military and financial aid to Ukrainian forces in hopes of delivering a swift Ukrainian victory, both sides have gone to great lengths to prevent the war from spilling over into neighboring countries. This is particularly for fear that Russia may resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Yet, what the missile strike – whether it was a targeted hit by Russia, or an errant missile deflected by Ukraine’s missile defense forces – shows is how quickly a war between the United States and its NATO allies could escalate.

The War Isn’t Over, Is It Time to Negotiate?

While the West breathed a sigh of relief, the war in Ukraine is still raging. The errant missile comes at a time when tensions between the United States and Ukraine are slightly strained as officials in the Biden administration debate whether it’s time to push Ukraine to the negotiating table. In early November, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration was “privately encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to signal an openness to negotiate with Russia and drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless President Vladimir Putin is removed from power.” Administration officials were quick to clarify that this was a request only, aimed instead at ensuring Ukraine is able to maintain international support as countries may become wary of supporting Ukraine in a war that could last for years. The confusion did not end there.

The Fatigue is Real

U.S. officials fear that fatigue in supporting Ukraine may be setting in. Since the beginning of the war, Mr. Biden made clear that the United States would support its Ukrainian partners “for as long as it takes.” Yet, in recent weeks, officials in the Biden administration are beginning to let on to opinions that it is time to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recently stated at the Economic Club of New York that a victory by Ukraine may not be achieved militarily. He further speculated that the winter may provide an opportunity for Ukraine to begin negotiations with Russia. Administration officials walked back General Milley’s comments, clarifying with their Ukrainian counterparts that the “expected winter fighting pause doesn’t mean talks should happen imminently.”

But that fatigue is not isolated to the international community. It’s also becoming a blatant bipartisan divide. Cracks in the United States internal unity may be beginning to show. As the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections, diminishing support among Republicans for Ukraine may hamper Biden’s efforts in supporting Ukraine. Some believe that presenting a unified front on peace talks in a more expedited manner could quell cracks that may be showing.

The Debate Erupts

As a result, debate erupted within the administration on whether the United States should apply more pressure on their Ukrainian partners to engage in peace talks with Russia. But, these private conversations, mixed with the contradictory public messages, risk eroding Western unity in supporting Ukraine. Not only are the disparate opinions appearing within the administration, but the Biden team is also concerned about the possibility of Europe’s commitment to supporting Ukraine may begin to wane as Russia deploys an assault on the energy sector, causing inflation and rising prices as winter sets in. The United States must be careful when encouraging Ukraine to negotiate with Russia as the safety of the Ukrainian people and the country’s sovereignty remain at risk. As Washington and Kyiv already have a delicate relationship, Mr. Biden needs to continue to ensure unity within his administration and with the United States’ European allies.

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