Poland blast: What do we know about the missile explosion near the Ukrainian border?

Key questions remain around the circumstances of the missile which struck Poland near its Ukrainian border on Tuesday, killing two people.

None is larger than who fired it. 

It came on a day when Russia launched a blistering series of airstrikes across Ukraine, but Moscow denied any involvement in the Polish blast.

A deliberate, hostile attack on NATO member Poland could trigger a collective military response by the alliance.

Where did the missile come from?

President Joe Biden said on Wednesday it was “unlikely” that a missile that killed two in NATO-ally Poland was fired from Russia.

“There is preliminary information that contests that,” Biden told reporters at the G20 summit in Indonesia, when asked if the missile had been fired from Russia. “It is unlikely in the lines of the trajectory that it was fired from Russia, but we’ll see.”

Speaking anonymously, three US officials said preliminary assessments suggested the missile was fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian one amid the crushing salvo against Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure. 

That assessment and Biden’s comments at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia contradict information earlier Tuesday from a senior US intelligence official who told the AP that Russian missiles crossed into Poland.

The Polish government said it was investigating and raising its level of military preparedness. A statement from the Polish Foreign Ministry identified the weapon as being made in Russia. 

President Andrzej Duda was more cautious, saying that it was “most probably” Russian-made but that its origins were still being verified.

Duda said that he has informed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Biden that it is “highly probable” that the Polish ambassador to NATO “will request to invoke Article 4, that is consultations among the allies.”

According to Article 4 of the military alliance’s founding treaty, members can bring any issue of concern, especially related to security, for discussion, allowing for more time to determine what steps to take.

What if it was a deliberate attack?

Poland’s statement did not address whether the strike could have been a targeting error or if the missile could have been knocked off course by Ukrainian defences. Ukraine still maintains stocks of former Soviet and Russian-made weaponry, including the S-300 air-defence missile system.

Poland and NATO used language that suggested they were not treating the missile blast as an intentional Russian attack, at least for now. A NATO statement called it a “tragic incident”.

If Russia had deliberately targeted Poland, it would risk drawing the 30-nation alliance into the conflict at a time when it is already struggling to fend off Ukrainian forces.

The Russian defence ministry denied being behind “any strikes on targets near the Ukrainian-Polish border” and said in a statement that photos of purported damage “have nothing to do” with Russian weapons.

If it is determined that Moscow was to blame for the blast, it could trigger NATO’s principle of collective defence known as Article 5, in which an attack on one of the Western alliance’s members is deemed an attack on all, starting deliberations on a potential military response.

“All the leaders with whom I spoke with today assured me of allied support, inclusive of upholding all the provisions of Article 5,” Duda said on Twitter. “We will consider this matter together.”

What did Russian strikes target on Tuesday?

Russia pounded Ukraine’s energy facilities with its biggest barrage of missiles yet, striking targets across the country and causing widespread blackouts.

The barrage also affected neighbouring Moldova. It reported massive power outages after the strikes knocked out a key power line that supplies the small nation, an official said.

The missile strikes plunged much of Ukraine into darkness and drew defiance from Zelenskyy.

In his nightly address, the Ukrainian leader said the strike in Poland offered proof that “terror is not limited by our state borders”.

Russia fired at least 85 missiles, most of them aimed at the country’s power facilities, and blacked out many cities, he said.

The Ukrainian energy minister said the attack was “the most massive” bombardment of power facilities in the nearly nine-month-old invasion, striking both power generation and transmission systems.

The minister, Herman Haluschenko, accused Russia of “trying to cause maximum damage to our energy system on the meskene of winter.”

The assault killed at least one person in a residential building in the capital, Kyiv. It followed days of euphoria in Ukraine sparked by one of its biggest military successes — the retaking last week of the southern city of Kherson.

The power grid was already battered by previous attacks that destroyed an estimated 40% of the country’s energy infrastructure.

With its battlefield losses mounting, Russia has increasingly resorted to targeting Ukraine’s power grid, seemingly hoping to turn the approach of winter into a weapon by leaving people in the cold and dark.

What is happening diplomatically?

President Biden held an emergency meeting with leaders of the G7 — which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union — along with the president of the European Council and the prime ministers of NATO allies Spain and the Netherlands.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called a meeting of the alliance’s envoys in Brussels, due to take place at 10.00 CET. The UN Security Council also planned to meet on Wednesday for a previously scheduled briefing on the situation in Ukraine.

Leaders of the G20 nations deplored Russia’s aggression in Ukraine “in the strongest terms” on Wednesday and demanded its unconditional withdrawal in a declaration adopted at the end of a two-day summit.

Underscoring the extraordinarily ciltse situation, CIA Director William Burns was in Kyiv on Tuesday during the barrage of Russian missiles that struck dozens of targets in the country. He remained in the US Embassy in Kyiv during the strikes.

Burns briefed Zelenskyy and Ukrainian officials on his meeting in Turkey with the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to another US official speaking anonymously.

Burns told Ukrainian officials that he had delivered a US warning to Russia not to use nuclear weapons, the US official said.

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau summoned the Russian ambassador and “demanded immediate detailed explanations,” the government said.

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