American military officials are "looking into" reports that two Russian missiles may have hit Poland on Tuesday, killing two people near the country's eastern border with Ukraine.
Poland's status as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) means the reported incident, which seems to have occurred as part of a Russian bombardment that targeted cities and key infrastructure across Ukraine, represents one of the most dangerous moments in the war since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Even if only an accident, it seems inevitable that the missile strikes raise the likelihood of a direct confrontation between the world's two largest nuclear powers.
According to The New York Times, two people were killed by an explosion at a grain processing facility near the Polish village of Przewodow. The Associated Press cited two unnamed American intelligence officials who confirmed that the missiles did stray into Poland.
General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that military officials were "aware of the press reports alleging that two Russian missiles have struck a location inside Poland" but said the military was still seeking to corroborate those reports.
The potential for an accidental missile strike inside NATO territory that could spark a broader war has been one of the top concerns for many observers since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Just weeks after the war began, Emma Ashford and Joshua Shifrinson warned in a piece at Foreign Affairs about the potential for an "escalating spiral" if Russian warplanes accidentally entered NATO airspace or if other events, perhaps accidental ones, caused the war to spill over Ukraine's borders.
"On a long enough timescale and with enough Russian missiles due for western Ukraine, the odds of this were growing," tweeted Ankit Panda shortly after news of the missile strikes broke on Tuesday. "This *exact* inadvertent escalation scenario (off-course Russian missiles hitting Poland/Romania) has been subject of discussions on pathways to direct NATO-Russia escalation since Feb. 24."
The scary question is what might come next. Article V of the NATO charter obligates the alliance to treat an attack on one member as if it were an attack on all, but Panda warns that the language in the treaty should not be treated as "a tripwire/automatic."
"Contrary to prevalent (though not universal) belief, Article V does NOT obligate NATO members to go to war if a fellow ally is attacked. It gives them leeway to take steps they deem suitable, including 'the use of armed force.'" wrote Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, a realist foreign policy think tank.
That the Pentagon is taking time to assess what happened in Poland is the first step to preventing a dangerous escalation. Indeed, some reports indicate that the explosion might have been the tragic result of Ukraine shooting down Russian missiles over its airspace. Regardless, the next moves made by both NATO and Russia will be some of the most fraught and potentially catastrophic yet seen.
More than anything else, for now, Tuesday's incident is a reminder of the inherent risks that come with any war or near-war between great powers—and should provide a much stronger incentive for all sides to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine before it truly spirals out of hand.