NATO and Ukraine should of course do the forensics on the November 15 missile strike on Poland and jointly make them public – something which has not yet happened. But the alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had it right the first time: whether it was Russian or Ukrainian is immaterial. The only reason a missile hit Poland was because of Russia’s massive missile and air attacks against Ukraine.
Many aspects of NATO’s initial response were a textbook case in how it should act in a crisis. A deliberate attack on the territory of any ally should result in a swift alliance military response. Two Polish citizens had died. In the moment, many observers thought such a rejoinder might indeed be imminent. Yet such action could lead to unpredictable escalation. Before launching into military action, NATO allies took several prudent steps.
First, they took time to gather the facts. There was not a continuous and sustained attack on Poland, just a one-off explosion. There was ample time to check the data and attempt to ascertain exactly what happened, without the need for immediate action. A deliberate and sustained assault would have been different.
Second, allies consulted among themselves — first in a multitude of bilateral formats, and then in a formal, emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, convened within 24 hours of the explosion.
Third, the allies concluded collectively that the explosion did not constitute an intentional attack on NATO territory. Since it was unintended, it did not, therefore, merit joint military action under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Other types of responses, however, should still be up for discussion.
Fourth, all allies, including Poland and the United States, stood back while Secretary General Stoltenberg explained the NATO position publicly — emphasizing their unity and solidarity through the choice of spokesperson. They resisted the temptation to sensationalize or to promote national spin-doctoring to suit individual national interests. NATO hung together.
This response showed clear alliance resolve while avoiding any unintended drift into a war that neither NATO nor Russia actually wanted. As far as it goes, this NATO response has been exemplary.
But what if it happens again? Given Russia’s continuous assaults on Ukraine, and Ukraine’s legitimate need to defend itself, it could occur any day. With this prospect in mind, NATO needs to do a bit more.
First, it must warn Russia. Any attack on NATO territory, whether intentional or accidental, must be avoided. “Accidental” attacks that repeat themselves are not “accidental,” but reckless. And NATO must not tolerate reckless Russian behavior that threatens NATO territory and kills NATO member civilians.
Second, there should never again be competing narratives between NATO and the Ukrainian government. The alliance should recognize that Ukraine has sophisticated radars, air defenses, and data collection capabilities. If Ukraine says it was a Russian missile, such claims should be taken seriously, not dismissed out of hand. At the same time, if NATO radars indicate it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, that claim should not be made public without consulting with Ukraine first. A true partnership requires both sides to refrain from initial comments, to consult with each other, to share and inspect each other’s data, and to arrive at a joint conclusion and joint press comment.
Third, if reckless Russian behavior indeed results in yet another impact on NATO territory, NATO must consider extending its air defense perimeter. Instead of starting air defense at the Polish/Ukrainian border, it could establish air defenses at the Dnipro River, across the center of Ukraine. Russia has no legitimate claim to control or even deny access to any part of Ukraine. It would be perfectly legitimate for Ukraine, as a sovereign state with its own airspace, to invite NATO to assist in patrolling its airspace — with a view toward enhancing both Ukrainian and NATO air security.
When missiles landed inside Poland, it was wise of NATO not to get drawn into a war with Russia that neither side sought. But with an eye on the future, it will also be important for NATO to warn Russia against reckless behavior that affects its territory, and to be prepared to take more assertive actions should Russia’s aggression against Ukraine again result in additional impacts on the alliance.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.