Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Deaths in Poland Are a Warning for Everyone

| Nov. 17, 2022

Errant missiles from Ukraine are a reminder that wars can always escalate accidentally.

If you think the risks of escalation in the Ukraine war are trivial, the tragic deaths of two Polish citizens from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile on Tuesday should give you some pause. A big war is underway in Ukraine, and even if the adversaries are trying to be careful, big wars are messy affairs rife with uncertainty and filled with unintended consequences. Weapons malfunction, local commanders don't always follow orders, and the fog of war makes it hard to discern what the enemy is doing and easy to misread their intentions.

Although cooler heads soon prevailed in this incident, it still illustrates the potential for accidental or inadvertent escalation. When reports that a missile had hit Polish territory were first announced, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it an "escalation" by Russia while Polish officials spoke of invoking Articles 4 and 5 of the NATO treaty, framing the event as a threat to the security of the alliance. Once the true origins of the "attack" were understood, Western officials were quick to absolve Ukraine of any responsibility for the tragedy, noting (correctly) that Ukraine had fired the errant missile to defend itself against Russian missile strikes on critical infrastructure, and reminding everyone that Russia started the war and is illegally occupying Ukrainian territory.

U.S. and Polish officials deserve credit for quickly identifying the true nature of this unfortunate event and acting to damp down pressures to escalate, but that is hardly grounds for complacency. Imagine what might have happened had it been a Russian missile that had gone off course and struck Polish territory, killing two people in the process. Moscow would have either denied any involvement or claimed that it was an accident, but even if the Russians had been telling the truth, who would have believed them? Pressure to respond in some fashion would have been intense, fueled by speculation that Moscow had ordered the attack to test NATO's resolve. Some analysts would have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was testing the waters for a possible nuclear strike or trying to gauge whether Russia could get away with direct attacks on key logistical nodes outside Ukraine. A chorus of voices would have argued that NATO had to retaliate against Russia to "restore deterrence."

The incident—especially Zelensky's reflexive response—also shows that Ukraine will try to use events of this sort to assign more blame to Russia and garner greater sympathy and support from the outside world. Indeed, the New York Times reported that as of Wednesday evening Zelensky was saying he "was unconvinced by the initial findings and that he still believed a Russian missile was involved." One can understand the logic behind his behavior, but it is not in our interest, even if it might be in Ukraine's. And this approach could easily backfire, with the Financial Times reporting an unnamed Western diplomat as saying, "This is getting ridiculous. The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile."

There is no question that Ukraine deserves an ample voice in determining its fate, but the outside powers supporting Ukraine get a voice as well. "Standing with Ukraine" does not and should not mean placing our own interests and concerns on hold, especially when they do not always overlap with Kyiv's interests or objectives. No responsible world leader can or should sacrifice their country's interests for another's, and a good ally tells its partners if it thinks they are acting unwisely....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Deaths in Poland Are a Warning for Everyone.” Foreign Policy, November 17, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt