Russian missiles apparently strayed into Polish territory on Tuesday, killing at least two people in the NATO nation in a development that threatens to dramatically escalate tensions between the alliance and Moscow nearly nine months into Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Polish, U.S. and NATO officials scrambled to determine what happened in the Polish village of Przewodow, just a few miles from the Ukrainian border, including whether Russian missiles were involved, whether the strike was intentional and whether a Ukrainian missile defense might have diverted the salvo into Polish territory. U.S. officials said President Biden, attending the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, was briefed on the incident and spoke by phone with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
The incident underscored long-standing fears that Russia’s invasion of its neighbor Ukraine could erupt into a much wider conflict between Moscow and the West. It happened on a day when an intense Russian missile barrage on Ukraine’s power grid plunged much of the nation into darkness. The salvos, which targeted Kyiv and other major cities that the Russian forces have failed to conquer, were felt beyond Ukraine’s border. Moldova reported that electricity was cut in many cities and towns.
Some reports called the barrage the biggest of the war. Russian forces launched the assault while Mr. Biden was lobbying fellow leaders of the G-20, including China and India, to support a strongly worded collective condemnation of Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who made a video plea to the gathering for more support to fend off the Russian invasion, called the incident “a slap in the face of the G-20” by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Hitting missiles on NATO territory …,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation. “This is a Russian missile attack on collective security. This is a very significant escalation. We must act.”
In Poland, the government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki convened an urgent national security meeting to address what officials called a “crisis situation.”
Media outlets filed stories and posted videos of the damage caused by an apparent missile strike on a grain silo facility in Przewodow. Polish government spokesperson Piotr Muller confirmed that two people were killed in the attack and said the government was raising the military’s level of readiness.
Polish authorities said first responders rushed to the explosion site. Reuters cited Lukasz Kucy, an officer on duty at a nearby firefighters post, as saying: “Firefighters are on the spot. It’s not clear what has happened.”
A Polish Foreign Ministry statement later blamed a “Russian-made missile” for the deaths of two Polish citizens and said the Russian ambassador to Warsaw had been summoned to discuss the incident.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press that Russian missiles had crossed into Poland and two people were killed, although it was not immediately clear whether the strike was intentional or accidental.
Pentagon officials were cautious in public comments. They said they could not confirm the Russian strikes inside Poland but were aware of the Polish media reports on the development.
“We want to deal with facts,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters. “We just don’t have any details to provide.”
Gen. Ryder said the Pentagon could confirm that Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv was struck by Russian missiles, most likely launched from Russian aircraft flying outside Ukrainian airspace.
“Russia has used a mix of capabilities when it comes to its strikes, to include surface-to-surface missile systems, airborne platforms, as well as sea-launched missiles,” he said. “In the situation that we’re seeing right now, we’re seeing them employ both ground-based and air-based assets for these strikes today.”
Underscoring the powder keg nature of the crisis, about 10,000 U.S. personnel are in Poland on regular rotations. Gen. Ryder said protecting the troops is always a top priority for U.S. military leaders.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in its first comments on the incident, denied that Russian missiles were involved, the official Tass news agency reported.
“Polish media reports and official statements about the alleged fall of ‘Russian’ missiles near the Polish settlement of Przewodow are a deliberate provocation aimed at escalating the situation,” the ministry statement said. “The Russian military has conducted no strikes at targets close to the Ukrainian-Polish state border.”
Russian forces have previously pounded areas close to the Poland-Ukraine border while carefully avoiding NATO territory. More than 130 people were injured and at least 35 killed in March in a Russian missile strike on a base in western Ukraine just 10 miles from the border. Virtually all of the ground fighting in the war, however, is centered in Ukraine’s far eastern and southern regions, hundreds of miles from the relatively quiet western parts of the country.
The latest development marks the first time Russian missiles have spilled from the Ukraine war into a neighboring NATO country. Officials from the U.S. and the alliance’s 29 other member nations — Ukraine is not a NATO member — were carefully weighing a response.
The alliance’s charter states that if any NATO member is the victim of an armed attack, other member nations will consider it an act of violence against the entire alliance and respond collectively to assist whatever member nation was attacked.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offered his condolences to Warsaw but cautioned against a rush to judgment.
“NATO is monitoring the situation, and allies are closely consulting,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in a post on Twitter. “Important that all facts are established.”
NATO ambassadors are set to meet Wednesday at the request of Poland under Article 4 of the NATO charter, which says any member can raise issues of concern regarding security before invoking the Article 5 pledge of collective defense that could require allied action.
Sorting out the facts
Some private analysts cautioned against escalation. They said there were too many unknowns about what happened and that a deliberate Russian attack on a NATO country while its forces were bogged down inside Ukraine appeared unlikely.
“Does this mean war between NATO and the Russian Federation is around the corner or inevitable? No,” said Rajan Menon of Defense Priorities, a Washington policy shop that has cautioned for months against escalation in Ukraine and called for greater direct communication between the Biden administration and the Kremlin.
Poland and NATO “are doing the right thing, which is to say, ‘Let’s find out what happened before making any determination on how to respond,’” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg News. “Intentions do matter, and accidents happen in war.”
Mr. Kupchan said the Polish incident underscored the larger danger unleashed by Mr. Putin’s decision to invade, with a hot war raging right on NATO’s borders and Russian missile and Ukrainian anti-missile systems clashing in the skies almost daily. It’s a “really dangerous situation,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, said Russia was to blame for the dangerous situation it created in the region that made incidents like the Polish strike more likely.
“It is clear that incidents of this kind, whether intentional or unintentional, are the result of Russia’s reckless war against the people of Ukraine and its indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets,” Mr. Meeks said in a statement. “If Russia made a mistake, it needs to own it immediately. Deflecting and denying is not acceptable.”
CIA Director William Burns met Monday with Mr. Putin’s top intelligence official in Turkey to convey a message from the administration about the consequences if Moscow uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Poland shares a large border with Ukraine, has accepted millions of Ukrainians fleeing the violence over the past nine months and has been one of the loudest voices in NATO calling for a strong response to Russia’s invasion in February.
Neighboring Moldova reported massive outages after the strikes knocked out a key power line that supplies the small nation, an official said.
“We’re working [to] restore everything. We will survive everything,” the Ukrainian president vowed. His energy minister said the attack was “the most massive” bombardment of power facilities since the invasion began on Feb. 24, striking power generation and transmission systems.
The minister, Herman Haluschenko, described the missile strikes as “another attempt at terrorist revenge” after military and diplomatic setbacks for the Kremlin. He accused Russia of “trying to cause maximum damage to our energy system on the eve of winter.”
More than a dozen regions — among them Lviv in the west and Kharkiv in the northeast — reported strikes or efforts by their air defenses to shoot down missiles. At least a dozen regions reported power outages, affecting cities that together have millions of people. Almost half of the Kyiv region lost power, authorities said. Ukrainian Railways announced nationwide train delays.
The aerial assault, which resulted in at least one death in a residential building in the capital, Kyiv, followed days of euphoria in Ukraine sparked by one of its biggest military successes: the retaking last week of the southern city of Kherson.
• Mike Glenn and Joseph Clark contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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