President Joe Biden firmly believes that the United States will support Ukraine in its nine-month battle to repel a Russian invasion. But he has insisted: “We will not fight World War III in Ukraine.”
So when a village in Poland near the border with Ukraine hit on Nov. 15 and it was claimed early on that it was launched by Russia, he and his top team of advisers were sent into crisis mode with a jolt. The United States and other NATO countries would be obliged to militarily defend fellow NATO member Poland if it were a Russian attack – a situation that could escalate into the world war they most wanted to avoid.
Biden was awakened in the middle of the night by aides in Bali, Indonesia, in the tail end of a week-long Asia trip, to inform him that a missile had killed two people in Poland, a US official said.
Ukrainian officials publicly blamed Russia, as did a since corrected Associated Press report, citing an unnamed senior US intelligence official.
The reports sent stock markets diving and officials scrambling. Eastern European countries reacted angrily and the temperature rose.
Preliminary information from US sources indicated that Ukraine may have fired the missile in an attempt to deflect a blizzard of incoming Russian missiles and accidentally landed in Poland.
While seeking confirmation, the White House and other US agencies publicly said little. “We cannot confirm the reports or the details at this time. We will determine what happened and what the appropriate next steps would be,” White House spokesman Adrienne Watson said.
Behind the scenes, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reached out to some foreign diplomats and asked them to err on the side of caution and be “measured” as the United States worked out how to respond, Western diplomats told Reuters.
Flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and dressed in a t-shirt and khakis, Biden called Polish President Andrzej Duda early this morning to offer his condolences and support for an investigation, the White House said.
Some Moscow communications failed
With tensions simmering and European allies worried, the US military tried to reach Moscow.
The Pentagon has emphasized the importance of military-to-military communications with Moscow during Ukraine’s nine-month war.
For example, the White House has held talks with Russia about its threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and top defense officials spoke with their Russian counterparts in October after Moscow accused Ukraine of planning a “dirty bomb” attack.
But at the Pentagon on Tuesday, attempts to contact the Russian military failed.
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his staff tried to make a call to his Russian counterpart, the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov.
“Some attempts have been made. No success,” Milley told reporters.
“My staff failed to put me in touch with General Gerasimov,” he said.
Sullivan, who has been in touch with Russian officials about the risks surrounding the invasion of Ukraine, has not been contacted in connection with the incident, a White House official said.
CIA director Bill Burns, who had met his Russian colleagues at Russia’s SVR intelligence agency in Ankara on Monday, was in Kiev on Tuesday, the day the missiles hit Poland, and traveled to Warsaw the following day.
A US official said that while in Ukraine, Burns “discussed the US warning he gave to the head of the Russian SVR not to use nuclear weapons and reinforced the US commitment to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.”
The US official said Burns met with officials in Poland and “discussed the current situation” but would not comment on whether Burns had contacted SVR again after the incident in Poland.
A Kremlin spokesman said he did not know whether Russia’s channels with the United States had been activated to prevent further escalation, but noted that the US response was “reluctant”.
Biden and his aides called an emergency meeting of G7 leaders at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning in Bali to discuss the incident, where he told them what the United States had learned — that the blast was caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile.
He answered questions from reporters after the meeting more vaguely, saying it was “unlikely” that the missile had been fired from Russia based on its trajectory.
Later, NATO’s secretary general said the blast was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile that went astray, but that Russia was ultimately responsible because it had started the war.
Poland has launched its own investigation into what happened. The US military has sent US explosives experts to the site to help with the investigation, at Poland’s request, a US official said.
The official said the investigation is expected to conclude fairly quickly that Ukraine fired the missile. “It is now a matter of doing forensics to determine what kind of missile it was,” the official said.
Ukraine insists there is a “Russian trace” in the blast and has sent its own experts to the site to investigate.
The incident shows how dangerous the Russian invasion of Ukraine is for Europe and the rest of the world, observers said.
“Poland and the Baltic states have been warning for some time that there is a real risk of something happening that will draw the West into a wider conflict,” said a European diplomat. “What happened on Tuesday makes it clear that this war is not managed, but not controlled.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NewsMadura staff and is being published from a syndicated feed.)
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