A missile falls on NATO territory. And then ?

Landing missiles on Polish territory could allow Poland and Ukraine’s other most active defenders to gain greater military autonomy. After all, preventing an ally from defending themselves is much more difficult than preventing them from helping others.

Something happened this week that had been feared since Russian and NATO warships and fighter jets came dangerously close in the Baltic and Black Seas, and Russian and American soldiers closer in Syria. A Russian missile strike against Ukraine saw a stray missile land in NATO member Poland killing two people.

After several tense hours of speculation that the missile was fired by Russia, US officials said it was in fact fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian missile. However, this does not change the fact that Polish nationals were killed by Russian-made missiles as a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and in particular its decision to move the action away from the front , where the Russian military is struggling, to target infrastructure throughout Ukraine. The November 15 strikes – the largest against civilian infrastructure since the start of the war – were Moscow’s revenge for the loss of the key city of Kherson, from which it has withdrawn in recent days.

The deaths of innocent NATO civilians in their homes from Russian missile strikes could become a turning point in this war, like the 2014 downing of flight MH17 and its international passengers. As indirect and unintended as it may have been, the explosion in Poland looks ominous amid endless pleas from Russian hawks who want to see a ‘real war’ – from television pundits to the former president-turned-deputy chief of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev – to strike the territory of a NATO country as a deterrent.

As Ukraine’s staunchest supporter and main logistical center for Western weapons supplies, Poland is frequently cited among the main targets of these threats (including nuclear threats). Today, this tragic incident will require a firm demonstration of solidarity towards the countries located near the combats, and will probably allow them to acquire more autonomy and freedom of action.

The fact that on this occasion the explosion was not caused by Russia following through on its threats against NATO will not convince outside observers that Russia could not at any time pass from refusing to launch strikes. near the Polish border to the approval of strikes against Poland itself. After all, from February to September, the Russian Ministry of Defense insisted – with the full support of state “journalists” and volunteers in information warfare – that it only attacked military targets and that it would in no way affect civilian infrastructure. Now he boasts of having destroyed power plants across Ukraine to the cheers of encouragement from those same neighborhoods.

The United States faces a stark choice. Washington remains reluctant to cross the line into a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia, and understands that the explosion in Poland was an accident. However, it followed an intention repeatedly expressed as a threat, and the fact remains that the territory of a NATO country was hit by a missile: and not during a military exercise or games of war, but during a very real military conflict.

If the United States does not react to the demands of an ally that has suffered from the war, it risks losing its authority. Newer, smaller nations on NATO’s eastern flank already suspect that ultimately the United States is only really prepared to defend itself, and perhaps two or three countries it considers important. It’s up to Washington to prove otherwise.

At the same time, even an accidental and indirect hit on NATO territory inevitably expands what is possible and permissible for Moscow. In the future, he might try to take advantage of it. This can, for example, range from denying indirect and unplanned strikes to denying direct and planned attacks. Then, as in the case of Ukrainian power plants, there will be no denying anything. One of the dangers of such situations is the gradual appearance on the agenda of something previously unacceptable.

The most unacceptable scenario for the United States remains a direct conflict between its troops and Russia. However, some important changes are not impossible.

For starters, talks about a no-fly zone over Ukraine could resume. Declaring a no-fly zone over the entire country would amount to the direct conflict the US wants to avoid at all costs, so at most no-fly zones could be established over some bordering parts of Ukraine of NATO countries. Washington could also use existing communication channels to try to convey that the United States will not tolerate any Russian activity in western regions of Ukraine.

Landing missiles on Polish territory could allow Poland and Ukraine’s other most active defenders to gain greater military autonomy. After all, for them, helping Ukraine becomes their own defense, and preventing an ally from defending itself is much more difficult than preventing it from helping others.

Since the risks in this war are not equal for all members of the alliance and not all members have the same level of determination, the less determined might at the very least not prevent those who run the more likely to act independently. In this logic, the group of countries most determined to act will acquire greater autonomy, opening the prospect of a gradual entanglement of NATO in an armed conflict with Russia.

Russian propagandists say Poland now has its own Belgorod, referring to the Russian region near the border with Ukraine that has been bombed several times since the start of the war. The Russian response to the bombardment of its border towns and villages has been quite moderate (too moderate for the tastes of those who would like to see a “real war”).

Yet the comparison with Belgorod unwittingly attests to how Poland’s status will change in this war, along with that of Ukraine’s other western neighbors. “Belgorod” is used by propagandists to refer to all parts of the Belgorod region and other Russian regions bordering Ukraine that suffer as a territory on one side of an armed conflict. The formula of “their Belgorod” brings new actors – and new territories – into this conflict.

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