The Missile Hit on Poland Shows the Heightened Risk of Escalation

BRUSSELS — The intense reaction Tuesday night to the likely false alarm about a Russian missile striking a NATO ally, Poland, was a sobering reminder — if one were needed — of the risks that an already brutal conflict in Ukraine could escalate into a wider war that brings Russia and NATO into military confrontation.

There are essentially two concerns. One is that a long, bitter war with forces battling on the ground, and missiles and shells flying through the air, will create accidents and incidents that can become something bigger — for instance, if it were clear that Russia had hit a NATO country, even if by accident, as was the initial fear Tuesday night.

The second, and probably more dangerous prospect, is that Russia might calculate that the use of nuclear weapons would provide it some advantage, either militarily or politically, to divide the trans-Atlantic alliance and cause civilian panic.

That fear was underlined by the visit to Ankara on Monday by William Burns, the director of the C.I.A., to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Y. Naryshkin, head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, to warn Russia again about the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. Mr. Burns then went to Kyiv to reassure the Ukrainians that the United States was not negotiating with Russia behind the back of Ukraine.

“The escalation anxiety is very real,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former American official who is research director for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. government takes it quite seriously, and is more worried about intentional escalation than about accidental escalation.”

“There is a sense of the Russian regime as risk-accepting, so if they are afraid of losing the war and their own survival, and see an opening to make a difference in the military or psychological realm, to weaken Western resolve, they won’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Mr. Burns’s mission, he suggested, was to alter Russia’s risk calculus, to make sure Russia understood that “the risk you’d be taking is a lot bigger than what you think it is, and by the way, we know your decision-making and where you are on this, and whatever benefit you think you’ll get won’t happen.”

Any war brings with it increasing risk of accident and escalation, said Ian Lesser, director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. “The sheer number of forces in close proximity and the length of the conflict, with no sign of abating, accumulates risk in the entire region,” he said, for both NATO and Russia.

Ukrainian officials and some of their European backers were quick to accuse Russia of intentionally firing a missile into Poland on Tuesday, causing the explosion that killed two people. But by early Wednesday, NATO and Poland said that what had detonated a few miles outside Ukraine’s border most likely was most likely a remnant of a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile, one of many fired in attempts to shoot down Russian missiles.

U.S. officials, who had cautioned on Tuesday against rushing to judgment, said they accepted that conclusion, but still held Russia responsible as the aggressor.

For his part, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said Wednesday that he was unconvinced by the initial findings and that he still believed a Russian missile was involved.

Nothing that contrast, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov paid a rare compliment to the Biden administration. “In this case, it makes sense to pay attention to the restrained and far more professional response of the American side,” he said.

The heightened and sometimes hasty reactions on Tuesday night were a warning, Mr. Lessing said. And the Cold War institutions that managed such risk have been deteriorating in recent years. “That was part of the logic of the Burns conversation, to try to establish some means of strategic stability,” Mr. Lesser said.

But it is not hard to imagine a Russian missile taking down a NATO plane over Poland, even if by accident, said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research. “This is what Clausewitz,” the 19th-century Prussian general and theoretician of war, “called ‘friction,’ and the more time that passes the more the risk accumulates,” he said.

But despite Russia’s large-scale use of weapons on civilian infrastructure and “its apparent attempt to escalate horizontally by disruption of energy supplies,” he said, “we need to acknowledge that outside Ukraine Russia has kept a cool head despite hot rhetoric.” So even after eight months, Mr. Tertrais said, “escalation to the extremes remains a low risk.”

Norbert Röttgen, a member of the German Parliament and foreign-affairs expert, said that the war in Ukraine was “concerning and precarious,” but that the United States and Poland had responded to the explosion in Poland with “cool heads.” The alliance must act on facts, he said. “No one wants escalation,” he said, noting that the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, has been careful so far “not to touch NATO.”

Mr. Röttgen warned against giving too much credence to the theory that Mr. Putin must not be “cornered” lest he do something irrational. “This is part of Putin’s narrative and he’s successful at it, to say ‘You in the West can’t even wish I lose this war because I will become totally unpredictable and irrational, so don’t wish for my defeat.’”

Analyzing Mr. Putin is important, but “the main lesson is that he must not be rewarded for this war, which has turned into a war crime,” Mr. Röttgen said. Mr. Putin has turned from a military conflict, which was not going well, “to a brutal war of ruthless destruction of Ukraine and its civilian structures,” he said. “He’s retreating in the war and committing war crimes instead.”

Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish defense and foreign minister and now a European legislator, said that even if what came down on Polish soil Tuesday was a Ukrainian missile, “the larger truth is that what happened is a direct result of Russia’s completely unacceptable attack on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, which is a war crime.”

Russia is not only a state sponsor of terrorism but now a terrorist state, he said, and if nothing else, Tuesday’s attacks should prompt Poland and NATO to strengthen their own air defenses. He noted that one of NATO’s key hubs for supplying Ukraine is in Rzeszow, near where the missile landed, and less than 100 miles from Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.

“At the very least you can do more to protect Poland,” he said, “and if you put air defense on the border, you can probably protect Lviv, too.”

The issue fueling anxiety around escalation, Mr. Shapiro said, is that “Russia is losing the war, but no one is really winning it.” The United States should be trying to convince Mr. Putin that he is losing the war in any case, whether he does so with nuclear weapons or without them, and that there is another, less dangerous, negotiated path to the war’s end that does not put his regime or Russia itself into jeopardy.

“You don’t want to put him into a corner, but to raise the sense of risk, while lowering his sense that he needs to take the risk,” he said.

After all, Mr. Shapiro said, if Russia does use a nuclear weapon, “it will only happen because we’re winning the war.”

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