If Russia had been accused of attacking the territory of a Nato member state it would have likely dragged more countries, including the US, into direct conflict with Moscow. As per Article 5, the cornerstone of the founding treaty of Nato, the charter stipulates: “the parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
Experts have long warned of the potential for a spillover to neighboring countries on Nato’s eastern flank that could force the alliance to respond militarily.
The missile blast in Poland came very close to triggering Article 5, but exemplary caution from world leaders staved off a disaster. In a sign of just how far tensions had been raised before de-escalation, Russia praised US President Joe Biden‘s “restrained, and much more professional reaction”.
Moments after the strike, Nato ambassadors had held an emergency meeting and raised global alarm that Russia’s war in Ukraine could spill into neighboring countries.
US and several countries prepared to strongly condemn Russia for trying to escalate the war and held an “emergency roundtable” on the fringes of the G20 summit in Bali.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the missile incident was “a true statement brought by Russia for the G20 summit”.
Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski called for caution but told RMF radio that “in all likelihood, we are dealing with a consequence of Russia’s actions”. Poland also raised its level of military preparedness.
Call for caution and de-escalation
However, as the dust settled, Western leaders cautioned against jumping to any conclusions even as Moscow vehemently denied that its missiles had landed in Poland.
China said “all relevant parties should stay calm and exercise restraint to avoid escalation”, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for a “careful investigation” and warned against “hasty” judgments.
A few hours later, three US officials said preliminary assessments suggested it was fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian one.
President Joe Biden quickly announced that it was “unlikely” it was fired from Russia.
A while later, Polish President Andrzej Duda said: “Ukraine’s defence was launching their missiles in various directions and it is highly probable that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory. There is nothing, absolutely nothing to suggest that it was an intentional attack on Poland.”
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, at a meeting of the military alliance in Brussels, agreed with the assessment. “An investigation into this incident is ongoing and we need to await its outcome. But we have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack,” Stoltenberg told reporters.
He added that the deadly explosion was probably the result of Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire but that Russia bears “ultimate responsibility” for the war.
Major escalation averted
With most major global powers in agreement that Russia likely did not have a hand in the missile blast, the likelihood of Nato getting dragged in to the Ukraine conflict was averted.
The explosion had sparked concerns that Nato, which Poland joined in 1999, might be drawn into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Poland is protected by Nato’s commitment to collective defence — enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty.
The Nato alliance was created in 1949 with the US military.
Article 5 of the charter stipulates: “The parties agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Since Ukraine is not part of Nato, Russia’s invasion in February did not trigger Article 5, though the US and other member states rushed to provide military and diplomatic assistance to Kyiv.
Article 5 has been activated just once — on behalf of the US in response to the September 11, 2001, hijacked-plane attacks on New York and Washington.
While insisting that the United States has no interest in going to war against Russia, President Joe Biden has said from the start of Moscow’s invasion that Washington would meet its Article 5 commitments to defend Nato partners.
“America’s fully prepared with our Nato allies to defend every single inch of Nato territory. Every single inch,” Biden said at the White House in September.
Rare praise for US by Russia
The Kremlin on Wednesday denounced Poland’s and other countries’ initial reaction to the missile incident and, in rare praise for a US leader, hailed the response of the US.
“We have witnessed another hysterical, frenzied, Russophobic reaction that was not based on any real data,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
He added that “immediately, all experts realised that it could not have been a missile linked to the Russian armed forces”, and pointed to a “restrained, much more professional reaction” of the US and its president, Joe Biden.
Russian missile assault
The missile explosion in Poland occurred as Russia targeted Ukraine with a massive attack on civilian infrastructure on Tuesday which has left millions of households without power.
Russian missiles hit cities across Ukraine, including Lviv near the Polish border.
Ukrainian air defences worked furiously against the Russian assault and claimed that it had brought down 77 of the more than 90 missiles fired at its cities.
With its battlefield losses mounting, Russia has increasingly resorted to targeting Ukraine’s power grid, seemingly hoping to turn the approach of winter into a weapon by leaving people in the cold and dark.
(With inputs from agencies)