If it was a Russian missile that struck a Polish village on Tuesday, killing two people, it would be the first time a Russian weapon has ever come down on Nato territory.
The Soviet Union and the US managed to get through the whole cold war without making such a mistake, because Washington and Moscow were well aware of the risks of going to war by accident or miscalculation.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a far less predictable nuclear power than the Soviet Union, raising the danger level, as Joe Biden has pointed out, to the highest since the Cuban missile crisis.
Putin’s intervention in Syria led to a Russian warplane being shot down by a Turkish fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, but that incident was contained. Similarly, Tuesday’s missile incident is unlikely to lead to a direct Nato-Russian confrontation.
The Polish government has said it is still investigating whose missiles fell on its territory, and the office of President Andrzej Duda has said it is considering invoking article 4 of Nato’s founding treaty, which allows any member to call for urgent consultations of the North Atlantic council “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”. Duda spoke to Biden; the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg; and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Tuesday night.
Warsaw did not mention article 5 of the treaty, which states that an armed attack on one member is an attack on all, and which would be the most likely mechanism of escalation to a war between Nato and Russia.
Article 5 cannot be invoked by just one member state, the former US ambassador to Nato, Ivo Daalder, said, adding it “requires Nato consensus”. The only time it was invoked by the Nato allies was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and led to the allies providing aerial radar patrols over the US and stepping up naval patrols in the Mediterranean.
Even if it was concluded that the missiles that crossed the Polish border were indeed Russian, and not Ukrainian anti-missile interceptors, it would fall short of an “armed attack” envisaged in article 5, argued William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control for International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“‘Deliberate armed attack’ is a real thing,” Alberque said. “Two misfired cruise or ballistic missiles ain’t it.” [Continue reading…]