Ukrainian Surface-To-Air Missile Likely To Blame For Deadly Incident In Poland NATO Says (Updated)

Polish, U.S., and other NATO officials say the available evidence is increasingly pointing to an errant Ukrainian surface-to-air missile being responsible for an incident that killed two people on a farm yesterday in Poland. However, details about the specific circumstances remain murky, and authorities in Ukraine and Russia continue to trade accusations about who might be a fault. Readers of The War Zone can first get up to speed on the situation with our initial reporting, which in part laid out how a surface-to-air missile launched by Ukraine might have been involved, here.

What is not in dispute is that two individuals died when a munition, or the remains thereof, hit a portion of a farm in the Polish village of Przewodów, which is located about five miles from the Ukrainian border. This came as Ukraine was subjected to a massive nationwide barrage of Russian missiles that primarily targeted portions of the country’s power grid, including sites in the far western Lviv region near Poland.

A view of police officers next to the blast site of a missile in Przewodow, Poland, which killed two people. Omar Marques/Getty Images

While the Polish officials are still investigating the incident, the country’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda both said today that the evidence gathered so far suggested that a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile fired in the course of the Russian missile strikes was likely what hit Przewodów.

“Ukrainian forces, countering a massive Russian attack, launched their missiles yesterday to shoot down Russian missiles,” Morawiecki said at a press conference today. “There are many indications that one of these missiles fell on Polish territory without any intention on either side.”

“We have no evidence at the moment that it was a rocket launched by Russian forces,” President Duda said in separate remarks. “However, there are many indications that it was a missile that was used by Ukraine’s anti-missile defense.”

“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 also told reporters in Brussels. Stoltenberg also said that there would be no emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors under the alliance’s Article 4 until the investigation into the incident was completed.

“We have full confidence in the Polish government’s investigation of this explosion and … we don’t get ahead of their work,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a press conference today. However, he added that the U.S. government had not seen anything so far that “contradicts” the public assessments made so far by Poland’s Prime Minister and President.

U.S. President Joe Biden had said yesterday that “it’s unlikely, in the minds of the trajectory, that it was fired from Russia,” though this still left open the possibility of a Russian weapon fired from another location.

Though an initial report from the AP, citing an anonymous U.S. intelligence source, had indicated that a Russian missile had hit Przewodów, that outlet and others have also since reported that a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile was more likely the culprit based on information from other unnamed American officials.

There have also been reports that NATO forces were able to track the missile that landed in Poland, helping to verify where it likely came from and who fired it. E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar planes operated by the U.S. Air Force or other NATO members, as well as other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft known to be flying regularly in the region, and various radars on the ground, could have recorded data about various potions of the missile’s flight, but that information may also have been incomplete due to various factors.

It remains unclear what specific type of missile may have crossed over the border and hit the farm in Przewodów, but Polish President Duda did mention the potential that it could have been one fired from an S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Experts and observers have already noted that debris seen in imagery from the site of the incident could be from a 5V55 missile specifically, though this remains unconfirmed.

The Ukrainian and Russian militaries have both employed versions of the S-300 system in the current conflict. Russia has also used them in a surface-to-surface role and stocks of long-range precision standoff munitions have been reduced to the point that S-300s, even though they are far less accurate than purpose built-systems in the land attack role, are increasingly being used to fill this gap. It remains unclear whether or not missiles fired by Russian S-300 units, including those in neighboring Belarus, would have the range necessary to hit Przewodów even by accident.

However, there are known examples of longer-range surface-to-air missiles flying well off course and impacting areas very far away from the point of launch. In addition, the conflict in Ukraine, specifically, has already seen a Tu-141 “Strizh” high-speed drone, which was reportedly carrying an explosive device, come down in Zagreb, the capital of NATO member Croatia.

It is also still not clear whether just one projectile struck Przewodów. Initial reports from Polish media indicated that two munitions fell on the farm near the Ukrainian border, though this could also simply witness reports mistaking multiple portions of one missile for multiple weapons.

For their part, Russian and Ukrainian officials have both continued to deny any responsibility for the incident.

“I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said today. “We have to participate in the investigation.”

“We advocate for a joint examination of the incident with the missile’s landing in Poland,” Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, also wrote in a Tweet. “We are ready to hand over evidence of the russian trace that we have. We are expecting information from our partners, based on which a conclusion was made that it’s a [Ukrainian] air defense missile.”

“Russia has turned the eastern part of the European continent into an unpredictable battlefield. Intent, means of execution, risks, escalation – it is all coming from Russia alone,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelsnky, told CNN in a statement. “And there can be no other explanation for any missile incident here. So when an aggressor country launches a deliberate, massive missile strike against a large country on the European continent with its obsolete Soviet-era weapons… tragedy sooner or later occurs on the territories of other states as well.”

Podolyak had Tweeted out an allegation yesterday that Russia had deliberately struck Poland, but would frame it as a “mistake,” none of which has yet been substantiated.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also said yesterday that the idea that a Ukrainain missile could have struck Poland was a “conspiracy theory” and nothing more than Russian propaganda.

“We want to emphasize that the high-precision attacks were launched only at the targets located in Ukraine and no closer than 35 kilometers [about 22 miles] from the Ukrainian–Polish border,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement posted on their Telegram channel. “The footage of the wreckage detected in Przewodów, published in the evening on 15 November in Poland, has definitely been identified by professionals of Russian defense industrial complex as elements of S-300 air defense guided missile of the Ukrainian Air Force. The statements of various Ukrainian sources and foreign officials on the fall of alleged ‘Russian rockets’ in Przewodów are a deliberate provocation aimed at escalating the situation.”

Russian officials have not offered any evidence to substantiate their claims that the incident was some kind of deliberate provocation. In addition, none of this would, of course, preclude a Russian missile flying off course or some other kind of targeting error, or that a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile was actively pursuing a Russian missile at some point before falling in Poland.

There is discussion now about whether relations between Ukraine and NATO could be negatively impacted if it is conclusively proven that a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile was responsible for this fatal incident. However, NATO appears to have already adopted an alliance-wide position that there are no indications that what happened in Przewodów was a deliberate strike, but that Russia is the real culprit, regardless. Officials from Poland, the United States, and other NATO members have made clear that their view is that if Russia wasn’t firing missiles at Ukraine, this would never have happened at all.

Fedir Venislavskyi, a member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine’s Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence, and the President’s representative to that national legislative body, said today that he did not expect any NATO action. At the same time, he added that he hoped the deadly incident on Polish territory would spur the provision of additional air defense assets to Ukraine. The U.S.-led Defense Contact Group held a virtual meeting today to discuss further military aid for Ukraine, and air and missile defense systems have been a big part of those discussions already.

“I think that yesterday’s events will allow us to ask more decisive questions about providing Ukraine with the most modern anti-missile defense systems, which will make even a hypothetical repetition of that case impossible. which took place on the territory of the Republic of Poland,” Venislavskyi told reporters during a briefing at the Ukrainian Media Center today. “But, in my opinion, it is hardly worth hoping that there will be concrete actions of a military nature.” 

Whatever the investigation into what happened in Przewodów concludes, it does certainly underscore now long-standing concerns about the potential for the conflict in Ukraine to spill over into neighboring countries and fears about future incidents leading to a dangerous escalation in tensions between Russia and NATO. Poland has already put elements of its armed forces on heightened alert and stepped up monitoring the country’s airspace.

At the same time, NATO has shown, in this instance at least, its ability to take prudent, but measured actions in response to an incident like this. The alliance has also demonstrated in the process that it has significant intelligence streams that can be leveraged to help avoid miscalculations and misinterpretations of intent in the future. NATO officials, even before Russia’s all-out invasion in February, had moved to bolster the alliance’s defense posture along its eastern flank, but have also made clear repeatedly that they are actively seeking to prevent any expansion of the conflict.

If nothing else, the deaths of two Polish citizens yesterday highlight that countries not involved directly in the fighting do face real risks due to the conflict next door, even if they are not directly targeted.

Update: 4:42 PM EST

During a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to reveal the content of his discussion with Valerii Zaluzhnyi – commander of the Ukrainian military – who Zelensky said told him that it was not a Ukrainian missile involved in the incident in Poland. 

Milley said the results of the ongoing investigation into the deadly missile incident in Poland “will be known in due time.”

“The investigation is ongoing,” Milley told reporters, including from The War Zone. “There is a debris field there. There are other forms of data that are going to be available that come from various technical means. I suspect very shortly we will have very confirmed data as to what the point of origin is, the point of impact. What the angle of the weapon system was, the flight trajectory. All of the details are going to be known in due time, but it’s pretty early actually in the investigation. So we’ll know that and [Austin] will know that and President Biden will know that. And we’ll all get informed here shortly by the investigators. And Poland has put together a team. They have the lead. And they put together a team of professional investigators to do that.”

By continuing to insist that it was a Russian missile, Zelensky is risking the wrath of NATO and others who support Ukraine, according to the Financial Times.

“This is getting ridiculous,” a diplomat from a NATO country in Kyiv told the Financial Times in response to Zelensky’s comments. “The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.