At approximately 1 pm EST yesterday, reports emerged that a pair of rockets had slammed into a quiet farming town in Poland. The tragic blast killed two locals, marking the first time that the war in Ukraine bled over into NATO territory.
Western officials now widely agree that the Russian-made S-300 rockets were launched by Ukrainian forces as part of their ongoing effort to counter Russia’s attacks on their infrastructure. But that conclusion came after a long day of finger-pointing, with many leaders in politics and media using the blast as an opportunity to condemn Moscow and call for a swift response, up to and including the invocation of NATO’s collective defense pledge.
To put it more bluntly, a lot of people spent yesterday calling for war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
The incident gives a unique glimpse into how moments of crisis, which are often marked by limited information and strong emotions, create the conditions for rapid escalation, according to George Beebe of the Quincy Institute.
“We’re all walking close to the edge of a disaster, and the United States should not be confident that we won’t be pushed over that edge by forces we can’t control,” said Beebe, who previously led the CIA’s Russia Analysis Group.
In order to better understand this dynamic, it is helpful to take a closer look at yesterday’s events.
The first indication that something had gone wrong in Poland came at 12:38 pm EST, when Reuters reported that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had called an emergency meeting of his national security team. Shortly after 1 pm, a flurry of Polish media outlets revealed that the rockets were the reason for the emergency gathering.
The first images of the blast quickly started to emerge, prompting some analysts to point out that the debris looked an awful lot like an S-300 rocket, part of a Soviet-era missile defense system that Kyiv continues to use today.
But at 2 pm, just as it had started to become clear that Russia was an unlikely culprit, AP News published a one-sentence, a one-source story that would prove remarkably consequential: “A senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people.”
Within minutes, prominent media personalities had already started to call on NATO to invoke Article V, which mandates that member states meet to determine a collective response whenever one of them is attacked. (It is worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, Article V does not prescribe a rapid response, and Congress would likely have to approve such a move.)
Jonas E. Alexis has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He studied education at the graduate level. His main interests include U.S. foreign policy, the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the history of ideas. He is the author of the new book Zionism vs. the West: How Talmudic Ideology is Undermining Western Culture. He teaches mathematics in South Korea.