February 26, 2024

Poland Under Fire: What the Missile Crisis Teaches Us About NATO’s Response and the Containment of the Ukraine Conflict

Regardless of the missile’s origin, we have never been closer to the risk of a global war since the start of the Ukrainian conflict.

Image Credit: NATO

On Tuesday, November 15, Poland reported two missile strikes against the town of Przewodów, located 6 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border. The strike resulted in two civilian casualties. While Russia was initially suspected, it has since been confirmed that the missiles were fired by Ukrainian air defenses against an incoming Russian missile.

Regardless of the missile’s origin, we have never been closer to the risk of a global war since the start of the Ukrainian conflict. Poland, a NATO and EU country, was directly impacted by the conflict. Though the situation was quickly resolved, the strike serves as a reminder of Russia’s latest bombing campaign on Ukrainian cities, forcing Ukrainian air defenses to be reactive. 

As the war escalates, we have to as ourselves: what is the likelihood of another attack, whether it be direct or indirect, on NATO territories? And by extension, is a new world war likely to emerge on the horizon?

While Poland is our current focus, a similar scenario could repeat itself in other NATO countries bordering Ukraine, such as Romania or Slovakia. The response would still be decided at NATO’s headquarters rather than at a local and national level given the implications for the allies. 

The most escalatory scenario involves the activation of a mutual defense clause as defined by both Article 42.7 of the European Union (EU) and NATO’s Article 5. While they both share similar features, Poland would more likely seek NATO’s Article 5 for political reasons. The Article stipulates that “if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.” The activation of the article would at the very least compel NATO members to assist Poland in order to help it protect its territory and ensure that such an attack would not repeat itself. However, the activation of this article, even in the case of a direct Russian strike, is unlikely due to the extremely high risks of escalation it carries. This would mean total global war and potentially increase the use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the activation of the mutual defense clause would need to be endorsed by the North Atlantic Council: the activation of Article 5 is contingent on the approval of allies, ensuring some moderation in the decision-making. In the case of the recent missile incident in Poland, the event cannot be considered a direct, targeted attack on Poland since it has been confirmed to be an accident, due to Russian actions but an unfortunate event more than anything. It highlights how decision-making within the Alliance ensures that hasty decisions are avoided and any risks of a doomsday crisis are reduced. NATO’s information gathering, whether it is achieved by the constant air patrols, member states radars, or the newly deployed anti-missile batteries was critical in making sure that the strike was correctly assessed and not mistaken for a Russian attack. 

The second scenario is less cataclysmal. On the first evening of the strike, reports indicated that Poland was seeking a solution in NATO’s Article 4. This article states that “the Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” In other words, this would convey a clear political message to Moscow, while not leading to immediate military actions.  For example, it would establish that there is a threat against one of NATO’s territories and confirm that it is being taken seriously (However, it would also mark how NATO is not part of this conflict and it is only ensuring there is no spillover on other European or NATO countries). It would also provide the opportunity for NATO to show its unity, as diplomats from all member states would be required to assist in a meeting for Article 4. This meeting would have been likely to be coupled with multilateral assistance such as deploying additional allied troops and equipment to ensure the protection of NATO territory.

A third option is the most moderate as it does not involve the activation of any mutual defense clauses or treaties. According to the latest reports, this seems to be the most likely option. This option would essentially be a status quo with no drastic change in troops, equipment, and agreements. Due to some political disagreements between the EU and Western European countries, Poland is unlikely to rely on the EU defense clause. Moreover, as previously examined, the activation of NATO’s Articles 5 or 4 might increase Russia’s concerns, increasing the likelihood of an attack. The quick response of Western leaders, who organized a special meeting on the side of the G20 in Bali, Indonesia, highlights that cooperation does not require the activation of highly politicized tools: western countries are already highly coordinated regarding the Ukraine conflict without the activation of any NATO Article. Moreover, NATO has already dispatched troops in Eastern Europe, with 11600 troops and air defenses deployed primarily in Poland. 

Despite the alarming headlines, the missile strike in Poland is unlikely to change the current situation. The stakes are too high to cause a hasty response and the first public statements prove that. As Russia becomes an international pariah, currently losing a conflict it started and losing about 100,000 men in the process, Poland and NATO, are unlikely to make any drastic decisions that would divide the international community further and result in irreparable consequences. While some allied countries, such as France, might offer additional military assistance to Poland to strengthen their ties, any additional support would not represent a significant shift since NATO forces are already deployed along the organization’s eastern border. This crisis will likely lead to more international assistance to Ukraine, particularly air defense, in order to avoid repeating the Polish incident. But the situation will not resolve until the constant bombardment of Ukraine cities beyond the frontline stops: as this event has shown, the failure of a missile poses direct risks to neighboring countries, and if this were to happen with a Russian-launched missile the consequences could be dire. Nevertheless, this episode highlights how strong the coordination and information system of NATO is in avoiding any escalation. 

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