Did Russia Just Start World War III? Probably Not

poland russia missile nato ukraine

Australians woke up this morning to news that doesn’t really pair well with breakfast or a sense of optimism for the fate of the planet: one or more missiles just killed two people in Poland.

The missiles were widely reported to be of Russian origin. As a member state of NATO, an attack on Poland would be considered an attack on all member states, therefore, World War III.

At least, that’s the conclusion that hundreds of thousands of people online came to this morning. The reality is, thankfully, a little more complex and non-deterministic than that.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, has urged people to await the results of ongoing investigations before jumping to conclusions.

“I would echo the words of the Polish Prime Minister who said that he called on all Poles to remain calm and prudent,” she said in a press conference this afternoon.

For starters, we’re not exactly sure what happened yet. At the time of writing, a Polish radio station had reported that two stray missiles had crossed the Polish border into the village of Przewodow in the east of the country and that two people thought to be farmers had been killed.

Firefighters nearby confirmed the report but said “it’s not clear what happened.” The Associated Press has cited two sources for their information, one being a senior US intelligence official, who claimed that the explosion in the town was due to Russian missiles crossing the border.

Russia’s defence ministry has denied the claims, saying that they are a provocation by NATO.

“No strikes on targets near the Ukrainian-Polish state border were made by Russian means of destruction,” it said.

Those earlier reports have now been countered after US President Joe Biden said that the missile (singular) was probably not fired from within Russia.

“There is preliminary information that contests that,” he said at a press conference.

“I don’t want to say that until we completely investigate, but it is unlikely, from the lines of trajectory, that is was fired from Russia. But, we’ll see”.

Ukraine is currently being hit by a barrage of Russian missiles which Ukrainian authorities have said are targeted at the country’s infrastructure. Blackouts are being reported across the country as well as in neighbouring Moldova.

Some of the shelling was targeted at Lviv, a city two hours south of Przewodow in the west of Ukraine. The village is also just across the border from the Dobrotvirska power station which could have been the target.

The Associated Press is now reporting that three anonymous US officials have said the missile was in fact fired by Ukrainian forces at incoming Russian missiles.

Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called an emergency security meeting to respond to a “crisis situation.” Polish investigators are reportedly working to confirm if the country could have been attacked by Russia.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has alleged that “Russian missiles hit Poland” and that the rest of the world needs to amp up its response to Russia.

Could This Missile Attack Result in WWIII?

As a member of NATO, Poland could, in theory, invoke Article 5 of the NATO alliance treaty that was signed in 1949. Article 5 states that: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”

It also states: “If such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.”

However, Article 5 is not an automatically triggered process and the NATO partnership, which includes 30 countries like France, the UK, and the US, would have to decide to enact it. This has only ever been done once, by the US after 9/11.

Poland could still trigger Article 4, which states that:

“The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened”.

A Polish government spokesperson has given a press conference in the capital Warsaw, stating that the country is considering whether to trigger Article 4 and convene a meeting of NATO. He also said that the government is raising Poland’s military readiness.

A NATO meeting has now been set for Wednesday (local time) in Poland.

In the event that NATO did decide that Poland had been attacked, they could invoke Article 5, which would bring the alliance into direct retaliatory conflict with Russia.

What Is the Likelihood of WWIII?

At this stage, it seems unlikely that NATO would trigger Article 5.

A NATO summit would have to assess what the immediate danger and threat is and whether a member state had been deliberately attacked. There would then have to be a unanimous decision over how to respond to the threat.

From the very rough picture we’re getting, a stray missile passing into Polish territory would likely not be construed as a deliberate attack on a NATO member state.

The explosion in Poland has happened during the G20 meeting in Bali, where global leaders have now held an emergency meeting to discuss the events. Many of them have expressed condolences to Polish authorities but have stated that they want the full facts of the event to be clear before making any decision.

Max Bergmann, the Europe director of security think-tank CSIS, has said that it’s highly unlikely NATO will trigger Article 5.

“I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think this is going to precipitate World War Three,” he said.

Turkey also triggered Article 4 when two of its soldiers were killed in Turkish territory by Syria. NATO chose not to act.

Russia, at this stage, does not appear to have any plans to launch a full attack on Poland as it knows that doing so would necessarily bring NATO into the conflict.

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