The precise chain of events doesn’t matter. Whether the missile that landed in the Polish border village of Przewodów yesterday was, as President Joe Biden, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and other NATO officials have suggested, the result of a Ukrainian antimissile defense barrage, or whether it was, as some initially suspected, a Russian targeting mistake makes no difference. The real cause of this explosion and the deaths of two people is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an invasion that has already devolved into an advanced form of state terrorism.
Usually, terrorist tactics are pursued by small bands of extremists or revolutionaries, not by established states that aspire to world influence. Russia is using them now because the Russian president knows he is losing this war, and in many different ways. Russia’s army is losing on the battlefield; Russia’s government is losing diplomatically. Russia’s leader is losing politically too. Vladimir Putin chose not to attend the G20 meeting in Bali this week, perhaps because he knew he would be shunned by many leaders there, and perhaps because he was afraid of what events might unfold in Moscow in his absence. The 19 other members who did attend issued the clearest possible condemnation of Russia’s war, declaring that the group “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.”
To compensate for these clear losses, the Russian state, like ISIS or the IRA, seeks to inflict suffering on Ukrainian civilians. On Tuesday alone, the Russian military sent more than 90 missiles into Ukrainian territory in an attempt to destroy the country’s electrical grid and other infrastructure. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians are already victims of this air campaign, unprecedented in postwar European history. Now two Polish civilians are victims as well.
The missile that fell on Poland could have had more serious consequences, but not for moral reasons: The incident in Przewodów was no more cruel, no more pointless, no more unjustified than the attacks on Dnipro, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Poltava that occurred on the same day. The two Polish farmers who died pose no threat to Moscow or its leadership. The Ukrainian victim who died in an apartment block in Kyiv posed no threat to Moscow or its leadership either.
The only difference between this explosion and others is that Poland is a NATO member, and the other members of NATO are bound by treaty to defend Polish territory if it is attacked. As a result, the Polish government called a meeting of the country’s national security council. Several NATO leaders held an impromptu meeting in Bali, and NATO representatives met in Brussels on Wednesday. No rash statements were issued and no threats were made. Contrary to the accusations of some Russian and pro-Russian propagandists, there is no rush to start World War III. The democratic world is not interested in escalation. The only country that continually escalates is Russia. This morning, air-raid sirens rang again all over Ukraine.
The Przewodów incident might not be the one that brings NATO more directly into this conflict. But it should serve as a reminder: We in the West have now grown accustomed to the war in Ukraine, but familiarity should not blind us to reality. The Russian regime remains extremely dangerous, not just to Ukrainians but to Poles, Balts, and indeed Germans and other Europeans, whose cities are also well within the range of the cruise missiles being fired across Ukraine. Russian attacks are growing in number and severity; they force the Ukrainians to respond with air defense that is also dangerous and potentially lethal too. The longer the missile barrage continues, the more likely we are to face a more consequential accident, or even a deliberate, carefully planned attack on a NATO state.
We need more deterrence, now. We could increase assistance to the Ukrainian army fighting in the east and south of the country, including modern tanks and ammunition, in order to speed up the recovery of territory and the end of the war. We could expand sanctions to the thousands of Russian officials responsible for this war, and make it clear that those sanctions will be lifted when Russia withdraws its troops. The Biden administration’s strong support for Ukraine is, so far, a huge success: It has already changed Putin’s calculus and has shifted politics inside Moscow. Backing the Ukrainians to reconquer the remaining Russian-occupied territory and persuading the rest of the world to isolate Russia further is the right response to this accident, and to the continuing daily parade of atrocities.