What really happened with the 'nightmare' missile strike in Poland?

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What really happened with the ‘nightmare’ missile strike in Poland?

This is the Nov. 16 issue of our flagship daily newsletter, Grid Today. Sign up for it here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox each day.


Welcome to Grid Today, bringing the best of Grid to your inbox. In this issue:

Plus, our climate reporter writes from COP27 in Egypt, and our global security reporter puts a missile strike in Poland in context. Let’s dive in.


News in Context

The “nightmare” of a missile strike in Poland

The news

It’s a nightmare scenario that has loomed over the war in Ukraine since the beginning: that a Russian missile fired at Ukraine would inadvertently strike a neighboring country. This is exactly the sort of miscalculation that experts and policymakers fear could lead to an all-out war between NATO and Russia.

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On Tuesday afternoon, it looked like the nightmare may have arrived when a missile hit a grain-drying facility in Przewodów, a town in eastern Poland about 10 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, killing two people. A short time later, U.S. officials told the Associated Press that a missile had crossed the Poland-Ukraine border. The Ukrainian government quickly accused Russia of having struck Poland.

The incident happened during one of the heaviest Russian missile barrages against Ukraine to date. Many of the missiles targeted energy infrastructure in Lviv and Rivne, cities in western Ukraine near the Polish border.

The context

Poland, unlike Ukraine, is a member of NATO and therefore covered by the alliance’s Article 5 security guarantee, which states that an armed attack against any member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Joe Biden has warned Russia consistently that the U.S. and its allies would defend “every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.”

This doesn’t mean that a missile strike would automatically trigger World War III: For one thing, NATO’s members would have to unanimously agree that the strike constituted an “armed attack,” which they very likely would not if it appeared to have been an accident. Still, it would be one more step up the escalation ladder toward the wider conflict that Russia, European powers and the U.S. have all been seeking to avoid.

As it turned out, the question was moot. Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Wednesday that the explosion was likely caused not by a Russian missile, but one from Ukraine’s air defenses that had gone astray. U.S. officials agreed with that assessment.

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Officials in the U.S., Poland and other powers were quick to stress that even if the missile wasn’t fired by Russia, the incident was still Russia’s fault: After all, Ukraine’s air defenses were only in use because they were under Russian bombardment. (Russia has itself used a version of this argument in the past in Syria.)

But Kyiv isn’t buying that line. On Tuesday night, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba took to Twitter to accuse those suggesting that a Ukrainian air defense missile might have hit Poland of trafficking in a Russian-produced “conspiracy theory.” On Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy doubled down on his government’s line that it was a Russian missile, telling a television interviewer, “I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike.”

This kind of friction between the Ukrainian government and its Western backers has been rare since the war started. Unless Ukraine has some significant intelligence that the Polish and U.S. governments aren’t privy to, it’s hard to see quite what it accomplishes.

Ukraine has recently been trying to replace its Soviet-era S-300 air defense systems — the likely culprit in this incident — with more modern Western systems such as the American/Norwegian NASAMS. If anything, a misfire by Ukraine’s current air defenses seems like a good argument that the country needs those systems, which could potentially make friendly-fire incidents less likely.

Ultimately, this incident was a tragedy, but it does not carry the same risk of escalation as if it had been a Russian missile. Still, it’s a reminder that when missiles are flying so close to international borders — and diplomacy conducted at Twitter speed — situations can escalate into something more dangerous very quickly. The likelihood that that will happen only increases the longer this war lasts. — Joshua Keating


Illustration of the COP27 climate talks.

Our Climate Reporter Dave Levitan is on the ground at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Missed our briefings so far? Catch up with them here.

Some rumblings from the negotiations, and Brazil makes a climate comeback

Here are just a few things that Wael Aboulmagd, an Egyptian ambassador and the special representative of the COP27 president, said during a press conference today as he provided an update on the negotiations:

  • “We heard very, very conflicting views on a number of issues.”
  • “I think we have a larger than normal number of lingering issues.”
  • “We would have hoped, under the current circumstances, [for] more willingness to collaborate and cooperate than in the reports we’ve received from the various negotiating teams.”
  • “Some delegations are holding back work in a number of rooms.”

In other words, things are going great — with just two more days left on the official schedule. In one bright spot from the negotiations, the U.S. will support India’s proposal to include a phase down of all fossil fuels, rather than just the “unabated coal” of last year’s agreement. There will still be plenty of opposition to this idea, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Read the full article. — Dave Levitan


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Bad Takes: We all want to know which candidate will win in 2024. And presidential predictions are irresistible, as Laura McGann and Matthew Yglesias explore in the latest episode of Grid’s podcast.

Protecting same-sex marriage: The Senate advanced the Respect for Marriage Act today in a 62-37 vote. What’s in the bill, and how would it protect same-sex marriage? Maggie Severns and Anna Deen report on what it does and doesn’t do.

What is fascism, exactly? The term “fascism” has been used a lot lately — and the question is being asked more as far-right political leaders and movements gain traction around the world. Joshua Keating explains in our latest episode of “No Dumb Questions.”


That’s all for today. See you this time tomorrow. — Cameron