Ukraine's over-the-top response to a fatal missile explosion in Poland could hurt its credibility at a crucial moment in the war

A police officers check documents at a checkpoint near the scene of a blast in Przewodow, Poland, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
A police officers check documents at a checkpoint near the scene of a blast in Przewodow, Poland, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka
  • An explosion in eastern Poland, a NATO country, killed two people on Tuesday.

  • Ukraine rushed to claim the incident was a deliberate Russian attack, while the US and others urged caution.

  • NATO's chief has since said it was likely caused by Kyiv's air defense system but still blamed Moscow.

One day after a missile hit NATO ally Poland and killed two people, top Western officials on Wednesday said the incident was likely caused by Ukrainian air defense systems defending against Russian attacks, contradicting the Ukrainian claims.

"Our preliminary analysis suggests that the incident was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. "But let me clear," he continued, "this is not Ukraine's fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine."

The preliminary analysis runs contrary to claims made by some Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who immediately rushed to blame the fatal incident on a deliberate Russian attack — conclusions which could potentially damage the eastern European country's credibility at a crucial moment in Moscow's unprovoked war.

Reports of a deadly explosion in eastern Poland, just over the Ukrainian border, surfaced Tuesday as Russian forces launched a barrage of missiles targeting Ukraine's critical infrastructure. Some media outlets reported at the time that the missile was Russian, or Russian-made, but US officials at the State Department and Pentagon said they were unable to confirm anything, only stating that they were investigating the incident.

Despite many Western countries warning that they were carefully looking into the situation and would determine exactly what happened, Ukrainian officials quickly claimed without presenting evidence that it was a purposeful attack by Russia, which denied any responsibility.

"Russia now promotes a conspiracy theory that it was allegedly a missile of Ukrainian air defense that fell on the Polish theory. Which is not true," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Tuesday. "No one should buy Russian propaganda or amplify its messages." He added that "this lesson should have been long learnt since the downing of #MH17," a reference to the downing of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy called the strike in Poland a Russian "attack on collective security." And in a Wednesday morning speech, he called the incident a Russian "missile attack" and said separately that Polish citizens were killed because of "Russian missile terror."

"Strikes on [Polish] territory — not an accident, but a deliberately planned 'hello' from RF, disguised as a 'mistake'. It happens when evil goes unpunished & politicians engage in 'pacification' of aggressor. Ru-terrorist regime must be stopped. Condolences to the victims' relatives," said Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelenskyy.

Some European officials joined in on immediately blaming the incident on Russian missiles. Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said the "criminal Russian regime fired missiles which target not only Ukrainian civilians but also landed on NATO territory in Poland."

On Wednesday, officials pushed back on claims that the missile was deliberate — or even fired by Russian forces.

"Ukrainian forces, countering a massive Russian attack, launched their missiles yesterday to shoot down Russian missiles. There are many indications that one of these missiles fell on Polish territory without any intention on either side," Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, according to a tweet from the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland.

NATO's Stoltenberg echoed these remarks, saying the incident was likely a result of Ukraine's air defense system defending the country and that an investigation in ongoing.

"We have no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack and we have no indication that Russia is preparing offensive military actions against NATO," he said.

With the new information presented by Western leaders, Ukraine's past remarks on the incident could negatively impact the country's credibility at a pivotal moment in Putin's deadly war.

Kyiv's forces have executed successful counteroffensives in the northeast and south, and they recently captured Kherson — an early Russian war win which had been under Russian occupation for most of the war. Losing Kherson marked a humiliating defeat for Putin, whose military continues to suffer setbacks on the battlefield.

These achievements are not only battlefield victories but also major propaganda wins that help Ukraine garner support for its war against Russia. Observations that Russian aggression against Ukraine was the underlying cause for the deadly incident in Poland could also be seen as a such, but a Ukrainian overreaction and dismissal of valid concerns as conspiracy theories could weaken its credibility at a time when questions have been raised about the value of continued aid.

Republicans, who have suggested they may move to discontinue or reduce aid to Ukraine, just retook control of the US House of Representatives.

On Wednesday night, Zelenskyy doubled down on his earlier remarks and said he had "no doubt" that "it was not our missile or our missile strike," according to the Financial Times. A NATO official in response told the paper: "This is getting ridiculous. The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile."

Investigations into what occurred are still ongoing, but Tuesday's incident marked the first time that Russian President Vladimir Putin's war spilled over Ukraine's borders into a NATO country. The military alliance and its allies — including the US and President Joe Biden — have repeatedly warned that they would defend "every inch" of NATO territory from Russia.

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