Panic Eases on Poland Strike as Allies Query Rocket’s Origin
US President Joe Biden and key European leaders urged caution after a rocket struck a Polish village just over the border from Ukraine, keen to avoid the incident spiraling into a major drama with Russia.
(Bloomberg) -- US President Joe Biden and key European leaders are urging caution after a rocket struck a Polish village just over the border from Ukraine, as doubts grow over whether Russia was to blame and, if so, whether it had been an accident.
The attack, which killed two people at a village about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the frontier with Ukraine late Tuesday, comes as tensions are already high with Russia over its February invasion of Ukraine. Moscow fired a missile barrage at Ukrainian infrastructure earlier in the day, causing energy outages across the country.
Some leaders initially suggested the rocket that landed in Poland had been launched by Russia, but by Wednesday morning the picture was less clear, with some even suggesting it could have been Ukraine’s missile defense sending a Russian projectile off course.
Multiple diplomats involved in the process said that while discussions are ongoing it’s looking less likely that Poland will invoke Article 4 of the NATO charter, which would kick off a discussion within the military alliance ahead of any potential response.
Adding a note of uncertainty however, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he’d been told by his Polish counterpart that Warsaw does intend to trigger the clause later on Wednesday.
NATO ambassadors were meeting Wednesday morning. Warsaw will decide based on consultations with allies, according to people familiar with the issue who asked not to be named on confidential preparations.
It’s not clear who actually fired the rocket that hit the village, according to Agnieszka Scigaj, a minister in the Polish prime minister’s office. But she added that Ukraine also uses the type of projectile that landed.
Asked if the rocket had been launched from Russia, Biden told reporters in Bali, where he was attending a Group of 20 summit, that “there is preliminary information that contests that.” Given the trajectory of the rocket it was unlikely it was fired from Russia, he added, “but we’ll see.”
His caution was echoed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who called for a thorough probe of the “terrible incident,” while a senior French official said nobody wanted an escalation with Russia that could spin out of control. Identifying that the missile was Russian-made would not prove who launched it, the official said.
The Associated Press cited unnamed US officials as saying initial findings pointed to the rocket being fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian projectile. A National Security Council spokesperson said they would not comment on the report.
One official from a Group of Seven country said it was possible Russia’s military had missed an intended target from inside Ukraine, or that a Ukrainian countermeasure had knocked the rocket off course. There would be little incentive for Russia to deliberately strike Poland, the person said, given the risk of a response from NATO.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, members of the military alliance have repeatedly aired concerns about being pulled directly into the conflict. While they have supported Ukraine with weapons and financial aid, Europe and the US have drawn the line at sending it the longest range missile systems and advanced fighter jets and rebuffed Ukraine’s calls to set up an air defense zone over its airspace.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied its forces had aimed missiles at targets near Ukraine’s border with Poland. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Bali he respected Russia’s statement as well as the remarks from Biden.
“Russia’s saying that ‘this has nothing to do with us’ is important for us,” Erdogan said. “Insisting that these missiles were made by Russia amounts to provocation.”
The Polish zloty trimmed losses against the dollar as traders interpreted Biden’s remarks as an attempt to prevent the Polish incident feeding into broader frictions with Moscow.
Russia has launched missile attacks from occupied areas of Ukraine since it invaded in February. It has also fired them from its neighboring ally Belarus, and from aircraft and ships in the Black Sea.
Poland says it is still investigating what happened.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly turning to missile strikes as his troops struggle on the ground in a war in its ninth month. His military recently withdrew from a key city in southern Ukraine that was captured early in the invasion.
Two people at the scene of the explosion in Poland, who asked not to be named, said a farm building had suffered damage. One said that a blast had shaken the windows in their car some 2 kilometers away. The second said police and military personnel had sealed off the area and asked everyone to leave the farm but that homes nearby had not been evacuated.
It’s not the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine that objects have entered NATO airspace. In March, a six-ton unmanned reconnaissance drone streaked across eastern Europe and crashed in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
Biden spoke by phone with Duda, offering full U.S. support for and assistance with Poland’s investigation and reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO, according to a White House statement. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Polish counterpart as well.
G-7 leaders met on Wednesday morning on the sidelines of the G-20, alongside those from the European Union. In a statement issued afterward they condemned the latest Russian strikes on Ukraine and offered support for Poland in its investigation.
An official whose leader attended the meeting downplayed the idea the Poland blast would see things escalate toward any sort of military response.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that he spoke with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and “assured him of full EU unity and solidarity in support of Poland.” Morawiecki said Poland had put its military on heightened alert near the border and would boost troop numbers there.
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