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Why an explosion in Poland isn't about to trigger World War III

NATO probably won't invoke Article V over a missile crossing Ukraine's border. (At least not this time.)

UPDATE (11/16/2022 2:00 p.m. E.T.): This piece has been updated to reflect new information regarding Tuesday’s explosion in Poland, which was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile fired in defense against Russian cruise missile attacks, NATO’s secretary-general said on Wednesday.

Russia spent Tuesday lobbing dozens of missiles at western Ukraine, payback for the military campaign that forced Russian troops to retreat from the city of Kherson. But at least one Russian-made missile missed the mark and crossed over into neighboring Poland, the Polish government said, reportedly killing two people.

It’s the kind of event that nightmare scenarios are made of: Russia kills civilians in a NATO member country, sparking an escalation spiral that leads to World War III. Fortunately, the odds of this tragedy triggering a nuclear war are extremely low. Even the most anti-Russian members of NATO will be reluctant to let this be the moment the war against Moscow turns hot.

The main reason for concern about an escalation is Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, a clause that has been invoked only once — after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Article V states that NATO members “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In such an event, NATO’s members are obligated to assist that ally by taking “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

But NATO is a defense alliance and a political body. And there are several things that prevent Russian missiles landing in Poland forcing members to declare war against Russia.

First, neither U.S. nor Polish officials are in a rush to make this into a bigger crisis than it needs to be. Spokespeople for the U.S. National Security Council and the Pentagon emphasized that there’s a lot we don’t know yet and that the origins of the blast in eastern Poland were still being investigated. Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller said on Twitter that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had called an urgent meeting of national security and defense advisers and quickly urged people not to spread unverified information.

The Polish Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement that on Tuesday afternoon "a Russian-made missile fell, killing two citizens of the Republic of Poland." Foreign Minster Zbigniew Rau summoned the Russian ambassador "and demanded immediate detailed explanations," the statement concluded.

It's worth noting the cautious, diplomatic tones we're hearing so far. Missing is the belligerent language you’d expect from countries in a rush to go to war. And that matters in an organization like NATO, where votes are rarely taken. Instead, the governing body normally acts only via consensus, meaning all 30 members have to agree. On something as big as invoking Article V, getting those countries all in line would require a much clearer indication that the attack on Poland was deliberate.

To that end, Poland said on Tuesday that it would invoke Article IV of NATO's charter, bringing the allies together for consultations on next steps. Already President Joe Biden has spoken on the phone with his Polish counterpart, as has U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

So far, there’s nothing that’s showing that Moscow intended for a missile to cross the border. The Russian defense ministry even denied on Tuesday that any of its weapons had caused the explosion in Poland, calling any claim otherwise "a deliberate provocation aimed at escalating the situation.”

Instead, Stanisław Koziej, the former head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, predicted that “this is an incident, some mistake, resulting from the fact that Russia uses increasingly older types of missiles that are less precise.” That’s not improbable, given the reports in recent weeks that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s electrical network are being hindered by a “shortage of high-precision, long-range missiles.”

It was undoubtedly a reckless act from Moscow to fire missiles it knows are imprecise that close to the border.

Tuesday’s missile volleys were definitely targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, according to a message from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted to Telegram. Those volleys shut down power in multiple Ukrainian cities.

While Zelenskyy and other Ukrainians have called the explosion in Poland a deliberate attack, it would make little sense for Russia to purposefully include an attack on NATO as part of that assault, given that the missiles reportedly hit a grain dryer in the Polish border town of Przewodów. That’s not the sort of thing you aim for, even if you’re trying to retaliate against NATO members sending arms to Kyiv. And while it's always best to take the Kremlin's denials with a grain of salt, a warning shot generally comes with, well, a warning.

It was undoubtedly a reckless act from Moscow to fire missiles it knows are imprecise that close to the border. But absent any evidence that this was more than an accident, the odds of this leading to NATO invoking Article V are slim. What will be telling is whether this sort of cross-border incident becomes more frequent as Russia’s stockpile of more accurate missiles dwindles as it tries to make winter as cold and dark as possible for Ukraine.