Missile strike sparked visceral fear in Poland and poses tough questions for NATO | Karolina Wigura and Jaroslaw Kuisz

If the history of Central and Eastern Europe is rewritten by the conflict of Ukrainethe same goes for the history of the North Atlantic alliance.

Two people were killed on Tuesday evening in Polish territory, apparently struck by a Russian-made projectile missile. US President Joe Biden and the government in Warsaw have sought to calm the tension, saying Wednesday that the missile most likely did not come from Russia but from Ukrainian air defense.

The question for Poland, however, remains, as it would for any NATO member state, and particularly one living in Russia’s shadow: what if this incident, or a similar incident, turns out to be be a deliberate Russian operation after all? What protection could it expect from the United States and its other NATO allies?

Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an armed attack on one ally is considered an attack on all. But what constitutes an armed attack? And what would NATO solidarity actually mean? The answer that Poland and other smaller NATO members (as well as the Kremlin) learn that “it depends”.

The possibility of a Russian missile landing on Polish soil or on the territory of one of the Baltic states, by accident or design, has been hovering over the Ukraine crisis for nine months. In the age of disinformation, one could even imagine Moscow admitting an “accident” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with a characteristic grim smile, expressing “regret”.

So when can a member of NATO claim that they must invoke the protection of Article 5 because the territorial integrity of the organization has been violated? Russia violated Scandinavian – Danish and Swedish – airspace on countless opportunities. But NATO’s supposedly impassable red lines seem changeable when a global nuclear armed conflict is at stake.

For Polish citizens who now have two deceased compatriots, “it depends” is starting to sound like the line between war and peace is deliberately blurring. In the days and weeks to come, Russia’s immediate neighborhood will find out what NATO membership and US military support are really worth.

A forensic investigation into the circumstances of Tuesday’s incident is essential. But the problem remains. The cool head of diplomats will hopefully continue to prevent a dangerous escalation. But don’t be surprised if hotheads in urban and rural areas bordering Russia react differently. What happens, they now ask, if another missile strays into NATO territory, killing more civilians?

The collective fear awakened throughout Eastern Europe by this war is visceral. Our recurring nightmare is that Russian troops and weapons cross the Polish border again, as they have done many times over the past 300 years. In a survey conducted after Russia invaded Ukraine, 84% of Polish citizens declared they feared that the war would spread to Poland. “I think about it every day”, a man living on the Polish-Russian border told the Guardian recently. “They could come at any time. Kill us in our beds.

For most Eastern Europeans, the war in Ukraine is seen not as a single event, but as a process of creeping and ever-escalating Russian aggression. This point of view reflects a particular fatalism and distrust of our Western allies. And while the reaction of the Polish government has been deeply measured, social media reactions show that many citizens are convinced that the situation has just turned their fears into facts. Worries that lives could be lost to the war, including those living on Polish territory, have now been shown to be tragically justified.

These regional fears translate into an expected outcome of the war. For many Poles, like their neighbors in the Baltic states, there are only two acceptable scenarios following the war in Ukraine. The first is the total destruction and total defeat of Putin’s Russia, similar to the annihilation of Germany in 1945. And if that’s not an option, then they want at least a repeat of 1991, the collapse of the Russian Empire. There is no third way.

At Poland’s insistence, NATO will have to deliberate seriously on whether the events of November 15 require active preparations for a decisive military response. A viable missile shield on NATO’s eastern flank will become a top priority. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently proposed protect for more than a dozen European countries is just the beginning. Current events should accelerate a speedy compromise on the issue. Rather than more sanctions, frontline states will demand more NATO troops and defense systems in place.

What happens next is a test for the West’s resolve to deal with Russia. A lack of action will once again be seen as betrayal, as leaving the Polish people in dire straits, as in September 1939, when Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east in partnership with Nazi troops invading from the east. ‘west. The traumas of our region run deep.

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