Geopolitics Military Affairs

Poland missile explosion: analysis of actors’ reactions with regards to the possibility of accidental escalation between NATO and Russia

Matej Rafael Riško

On November 15, 2022, fragments of a (presumably two) missiles hit the territory of Poland. They struck the abandoned buildings of a former state farm (grain dryer) in the village of Przewodów, near the Ukrainian border, killing two people. The incident represents a crucial event in the development of the conflict so far because of the possibility of accidental escalation, for which it must take place in an initially informationally unclear environment (domain). At the same time, it enables the examination of reactions of the various actors and parties involved in the event of a potential escalation.

The missile frgments hit Przewodów after 15:30, the fire brigade was notified at 15:38, and rescue forces were dispatched to the site. In an unconfirmed response, military aircraft from the airbase near Tomaszów Lubelski were due to take off (QRA).

The incident was preceded by a massive attack by Russian forces on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. According to Ukraine’s reports, 75 Kh-101, Kh-555 and 3M-54 Calibre, 2 Kh-59, 10 Shahed-136 drones, 6 S-300 complex missiles launched at targets in Kharkiv, 1 Orion drone and 1 Orlan drone were launched. According to Kiyev, Ukrainian AD shot down 73 cruise missiles and 10 drones. While the data on downed targets can be taken as at least partially relevant, it is impossible to determine the actual number of missiles and drones launched, given Russia’s use of swarming tactics in the case of drones. Moreover, the use of a relatively weak warhead on the HESA Shahed-136 (Geranium-2 in Russian designation) drones weighing 30-50kg does not allow for accurate estimates of the number of drones used based on the damages caused by them, specifically under the Ukrainian information embargo.

One of the targets of the Russian attack was likely the Ukrainian power plant and transmission system in Dobrovitske, close to the Polish border.

The incident did not show the characteristics of a targeted attack

One of the options available to Russia to escalate the conflict is the so-called “compound escalation”. By attacking a target outside Ukraine, the crisis would escalate beyond the existing framework (and we are talking about the set of targets and also about the geographical level of the campaign). In this case, Russia could try to put pressure on a third party indirectly involved in the conflict (these are primarily NATO states) to raise the stakes. This possibility, given by the use of nuclear arsenals for actively deterring the third parties from entering the conflict, represents one of the key dilemmas that the collective West must reckon with in the case of helping Ukraine, as it seeks not to cross the tolerable threshold of the escalation, which is the conflict with the Russian Federation.

At the same time, the threat of using a nuclear arsenal to actively deter the third states has been significantly diminished in recent months, especially by the rhetoric and signalling in late October and early November. The GROM22 strategic forces exercise was virtually devoid of large-scale dual-use capability systems and the subsequent public statement by the Russian Federation on November 2 further diminished this threat by emphasising a declaratory policy of nuclear use. Therefore, it was unlikely that Russia was interested in compound escalation, especially in the form of raising the stakes with NATO states.

The USA assessed the situation earlier than Warsaw

In response to the missiles hitting Poland, a meeting of the Polish government was held the same day at 21:00. Meanwhile, information about the incident was unofficially confirmed by US officials. In the official statement released at 8:27 p.m., the US noted: “We are aware of the press reports alleging that two Russian missiles have struck a location inside Poland near the Ukraine border. I can tell you that we don’t have any information at this time to corroborate those reports and are looking into this further”. The Hungarian government has called a meeting of the Defense Council. Subsequently, the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Russian missiles had struck the Polish territory. Government spokesman Piotr Müller said after the cabinet meeting that Poland had decided to “verify whether there are grounds for initiating proceedings under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty” and that there had been “increased readiness of some military units and other uniformed services”. Late in the evening, negotiations were underway between the Polish and American governments as well as with Ukrainian President Zelensky. Subsequently, traffic was suspended at all border crossings with Subcarpathian Ukraine, and a late-night (after 23:00) report by Polsat News correspondent in Ukraine, Mateusz Lachowski, referred to a hit by a Kh-101 cruise missile, citing foreign sources and sources in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

Shortly before midnight, the first photos of the fragments of the captured missile were released, as well as Joe Biden‘s statement, emphasizing his full support for Poland in the investigation of the incident and underlining the firmness of the allied commitment to Poland. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that a Russian-made missile hit the Polish territory and summoned the Russian ambassador for a detailed explanation.

The subsequent rhetoric of Polish President Duda was directed towards de-escalation of the situation. “We must be prepared for any fake news, for attacks in the information domain. Let us bear in mind that chaos is a weapon used by Russia.” He also emphasised the readiness of collective defence and its purpose: “All the leaders with whom I spoke with today assured me of allied support, inclusive of upholding all the provisions of (NATO’s) Art. 5 … We will consider this matter together… The protection of Poland has been strengthened … There is no indication that such events will occur.”

Duda’s statements the following day were particularly crucial: “There is no indication that this was an intentional attack on Poland. Most likely, it was a Russian-made S-300 rocket.” and “There is a high probability that this is a missile that was simply used by Ukrainian missile defence.” He added that it was “probably an unfortunate accident, alas.”

It can be assumed that, given the presence of the US AWACS in the area, US, Polish and other NATO officials already had relatively accurate information about the incident at this time.  Only subsequently came reactions condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine and holding Russia responsible for what had happened in terms of starting a military conflict: “Russia bears ultimate responsibility, as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

The reaction of Polish General Waldemar Skrzypcak to RadioZet.pl is particularly interesting: “We need to improve the air defence system and, above all, the flow of information. It cannot happen that the Americans know and we don’t know and don’t react. All the more so because there are many air defence systems in Poland, both British and American. There should be a reaction, because this time the missile fell in Przewodów and next time it may fall elsewhere, on Plac Trzech Krzyży in Warsaw or on the castle in Lublin.” There was an obvious delay in informing the Polish side. This may stem not only from a reluctance to share information immediately but also from its ambiguous nature, where the American side shared information only when it was certain of its credibility and had an idea of its communication and strategy.

In an interview for the Wirtualna Polska on 16.11., the former head of NATO’s Information Office in Moscow, Robert Pszczela, said: “There was a sense of fear in (Kremlin officials) statements, lest one think that Russia was behind it.”

Assessment of accidental escalation and reactions of the parties involved

It can be assumed that Ukraine was involved in the incident only in the form of sharing information with partners. The US had an information advantage, but this was not easily processed and the real assessment of the available data only took place overnight. Poland, in particular, tested its reaction times and reflexes to an incident of this type. There is no information that there were any problems.

A very rational assessment of the situation by Poland, which acted very cautiously, turned out to be crucial. Although it was one of the missiles of the 5v55 family of the S-300 air defence complex, it is not possible to claim that, especially in the initial hours after the incident, there was a certainty that the missile was not fired by Russian forces. While the active range of the missile’s ability to destroy aerodynamic targets is quoted at 90 km, in reality, when used in ground attack mode, the range is higher. Some tests from the 1980s suggest up to almost twice that range when fired along a ballistic trajectory. Of course, the question of interception by Ukrainian air defences remains, as this is a non-standard use (and similar or even identical types of missiles would probably be used against it).

For the purposes of collective defence, it is necessary to estimate a reaction time for triggering Article 5 of collective defence. This is estimated to be at least 36-48 hours. Below this threshold, it is theoretically possible to de-escalate the situation. However, it should be noted that the very concept of escalation to de-escalation is highly disputable, but must be taken into account. From this point of view, the incident demonstrated a flexible decision time horizon of approximately 8 hours (until midnight of 15.11.2022). At the same time, what proves to be somewhat problematic and what will still be subject to analysis and discussions is strategic communication in the event of a possible response, which in such a case would probably involve the Ukrainian side. In this case, the Ukrainian side basically stayed out of the process. In the situation of any escalation of the conflict, the chaos in the information domain caused by a lack of information can lead to attempts to influence the behaviour of both the enemy side and the ally or to influence any other actor in the conflict. In this case, it can be illustrated by Ukrainian pressure on Poland and the Alliance to gain stronger political support by claiming that the missile was Russian and fired from Russian-controlled territory.

This factor (of information chaos and attempts to influence each other’s behaviour) should not be underestimated as the goal of alliance and other third actors is to stay out of direct military engagement and under the threshold leading to direct military engagement.

Conclusion

The reactions of the stakeholders were relatively flexible and reasonable from a strategic point of view. Russia, at least implicitly, found itself in a situation it could not control. Despite the management of the escalation being partly illusory, the outcome of the incident is more favourable for the states of the collective West than for Russia, with their reflexive actions being rational and flexible at the same time.

This situation illustrated the possibility of a compound escalation below the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons with various options – including further escalation. It confirms the threshold for nuclear use while stabilising the position of the states of the collective West as a third actor. On the other hand, it does not show anything about the possible nuclear use, even in scenarios which are comparable with this incident (demonstrative use of nuclear weapons against the NATO territory) as it stabilizes the threshold for their use and at the same time explores a response below the threshold.

This is likely to lead to continuity of signalling and the maintenance of some level of ambiguity in the eventual response. In this context, the concrete steps on 16.11. and the following days (mentioned chronologically in the text above) can be researched and studied.

The incident is likely to increase political support in the West for the supply of air defence assets to Ukraine, which can be seen as a positive unintended consequence/side effect.

Photo credit: Canva.com

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