Transformative moments in history can happen when you least expect them. The incidents that make or break the world are much more likely to happen on some anonymous Tuesday, rather than when something memorrg7⁷able is anticipated. For instance, no one anticipated that Sarajevo would be the setting for an assassination in 1914 that would trigger one offer the deadliest wars in human history, one whose consequences we still live with today. No one would have expected that a provincial city recently annexed by a fading empire would be the starting point for global catastrophe. The anonymous can become the ominous literally overnight. When tensions are high and international relations teeter on the precipice between war and peace, seemingly small events have the potential to metastasize into a conflict beyond anyone’s imagination. This is what happened at a small village in eastern Poland when a missile landed on a NATO member state’s territory leading to the deaths of two Polish citizens.
Epicenter – Location of missile that landed on Polish territory
Article 5 – A Commitment To Collective Security
In the later afternoon on Tuesday, November 15th, a couple of farmers were returning from corn fields around the village of Przewodow in eastern Poland. Then suddenly they heard an earsplitting sound followed by an explosion. In a matter of seconds, the lives of two unsuspecting Polish farmers came to an end. They were collateral damage from a missile falling out of the sky. That same day, Russian forces had launched attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure with over a hundred missiles and suicide drones. Ukraine’s air defenses shot down over 80% of them, but some managed to still get through to their targets. When one missile hit a grain storage facility ten kilometers west of the Polish-Ukrainian border, it was believed to be a Russian missile that had missed its target.
Immediately, international news media across the world reported a potential Russian strike against a NATO member state. References were soon made to the potential for an apocalyptic showdown that could decide the fate of the world. Whether intentional or not, the fact that a Russian missile might have landed on a NATO member state’s soil was alarming in the extreme. Discussions soon turned to whether the incident would lead NATO to invoke Article 5, whereby an attack against one member is considered an attack against all members. Members of the alliance are bound by Article 5 to come to the defense of fellow members when they are attacked by another nation. This has the potential for direct confrontation between nuclear armed powers.
Article 5 is a collective security measure meant to provide ironclad protection for all NATO member states, no matter if they are large or small. It has been extremely helpful in keeping the post-World War II peace in Europe. It is one of the reasons Europe has experienced very few wars since 1945. It is not a coincidence that the two largest European conflicts since then, the Yugoslav Wars and Ukraine-Russia War, involved non-NATO member states. The one major drawback to Article 5 is that it could lead to a situation where larger powers get pulled into a war due to their obligations. This is the situation that suddenly facing NATO members after that missile landed on Polish territory. Immediately Poland’s senior government leadership commenced an emergency meeting. President Joe Biden of the United States did the same at the G7 meeting in Bali, Indonesia with several leaders of other NATO member states. The situation was fraught with danger.
Ground zero – Crater from missile strike in Przewodow
Off Target – Raising The Risk
The first hint that the incident would not be allowed to spiral out of control came when Poland announced they would invoke Article 4, which calls for consultation with other members “when territorial integrity, political independence or security of the parties is threatened.” Not long thereafter, President Biden announced that preliminary information showed that the missile was not fired from Russian territory. That immediately raised the question of where it did come from. Further sleuthing by investigators on the scene and intelligence agencies led to the conclusion that the missile came from Ukrainian air defenses aimed at one of the incoming Russian missiles.
There was a palpable sense of relief as all those involved could breathe easier. Neither Articles 4 nor 5 would be invoked. Unfortunately, the incident showed how easily the Ukraine-Russia War could lead to a wider and possibly cataclysmic conflict. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th, there has been a great deal of worry of the war spreading to other parts of Europe. That concern is warranted. The incident at Przewodow will likely not be the last time missiles end up on the wrong side of the border. The problem is that the sky has no limit. Once a missile is launched either for offensive or defensive purposes there is always the chance it will go off target with unintended consequences.
The missile which landed on Polish territory may have come from Ukrainian air defenses, but that was only because of the attacks being launched by Russia. The incident would never have occurred if not for Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine. In the future, there is still just as great a chance that the missile will come from Russian forces. Intelligence estimates have shown that Russian stocks of precision missiles are running extremely low. Due to sanctions, the Russians cannot acquire the necessary technological components for precision guided missiles. As the war has continued, the Russians have increasingly relied upon missiles that are imprecise by the standards of modern warfare in the 21st century. That raises the risk of a missile landing in Poland or another nearby NATO member state.
The death of innocents – Damage from a Russian missile strike in Ukraine
Future Prospects – From Crisis To Consequences
The main conclusion to be drawn from the incident at Przewodow is that NATO and Russia could be drawn into direct conflict through an unintentional accident. It will be imperative to keep open channels of communication and seek de-escalation from this point forward between all sides. This mini crisis also offers an opportunity, some might say an excuse, to provide Ukraine with the most up to date air defense systems to deter Russian missile attacks. This would further safeguard Ukrainian civilians and the nation’s critical infrastructure from Russian attack, while lowering the chance that a Russian missile accidentally lands on a NATO member state’s territory. Even with these measures, a heightened risk of a Russian missile going off target will remain. The more missiles Russia launches, the greater the chance that one of them will find its way into a NATO member’s territory. Next time this happens the consequences might be more than deadly. They could end up catastrophic.