Western leaders moved to calm fears of a dangerous escalation in Russia’s war in Ukraine Wednesday, saying a missile blast in Poland was likely an accident, while Kyiv pushed back hard at the idea its anti-aircraft fire was to blame.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky pointed the finger at Russia, but the United States, like NATO, came out firmly in support of Warsaw’s assessment that the deadly missile was probably fired by Ukraine.
Two people were killed on Tuesday when at least one missile hit a village in NATO member Poland near the Ukrainian border, during a mass Russian bombardment aimed at civilian infrastructure inside Western-backed Ukraine.
Both Warsaw and NATO have said the explosion in the village of Przewodow was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile launched to intercept a Russian barrage — while stressing Moscow was ultimately to blame for starting the conflict.
The White House said it had “seen nothing that contradicts” Poland’s preliminary assessment — while also declaring that “the party ultimately responsible for this tragic incident is Russia.”
President Zelensky, however, said Kyiv had seen no proof the missile was Ukrainian, demanding to be part of any investigation and asking for access to the blast site as well as “all the data” on the projectile.
“I have no doubt that this is not our missile,” Zelensky said. “I believe that this was a Russian missile, based on our military reports.”
In the immediate aftermath, the incident sparked fears of a major new escalation in the Ukraine conflict, but by Wednesday President Andrzej Duda announced Poland’s conclusion the projectile likely originated from Ukraine’s own air defences.
Duda said it was very likely that the Soviet-era missile was launched by Ukraine in what he called an “unfortunate accident,” but that the blame lay with Russia because of its attacks on Ukraine.
Russia ‘bears responsibility’
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg underlined this stance and EU diplomats meeting in Brussels praised Warsaw, one of Ukraine’s closest friends and Russia’s fiercest foes, for its measured response.
After crisis talks in Brussels, Stoltenberg said an ongoing investigation was expected to find “that the incident was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks”.
“But let me be clear, this is not Ukraine’s fault,” he continued. “Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg said NATO had ramped up its defences along its eastern flank in response to the war in Ukraine and denied that the alliance’s air defences had failed.
The NATO chief said Poland had not invoked Article 4 of the Western alliance’s treaty, which would have obliged members to discuss whether “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened”.
NATO’s most powerful member, the United States, has hundreds of troops in Poland and leads the West in supplying weapons to support Zelensky’s government in Kyiv.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said American experts were “on the ground” supporting the Polish investigation.
The Russian defence ministry said: “Photographs of the wreckage… were unequivocally identified by Russian military experts as fragments of a guided anti-aircraft missile of a Ukrainian S-300 air defence system.”
It insisted that its own strikes, a barrage of scores of missiles, “were carried out on targets only on the territory of Ukraine and at a distance of no closer than 35 kilometres (about 20 miles) from the Ukrainian-Polish border”.
The explosion rocked the village of Przewodow in eastern Poland at 1440 GMT on Tuesday.
“I’m scared. I didn’t sleep all night,” Anna Magus, a 60-year-old teacher at the local elementary school, told AFP near the scene.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and still holds swathes of territory despite a series of recent battlefield defeats.
The conflict has caused deep unease in neighbouring Poland, which shares a 530-kilometre (329-mile) border with Ukraine and where memories of Soviet domination are still very raw.
The explosion came after a wave of Russian missiles hit cities across Ukraine on Tuesday, including Lviv, near the Polish border.
General Mark Milley, the top US military officer, said the recent strikes may have been the heaviest of the war, and condemned the targeting of civilian infrastructure.
“The deliberate targeting of the civilian power grid, causing excessive collateral damage and unnecessary suffering on the civilian population, is a war crime,” Milley said.
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