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Poland’s leaders have endangered Nato Politicians are putting self-interest over security

Poland has little room for error. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Poland has little room for error. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images


May 19, 2023   5 mins

On 16 December 2022, the most significant territorial breach in Nato’s history took place, but the chances are you didn’t hear about it. That day — almost a month after a presumed-to-be errant Ukrainian air defence rocket made international headlines when it killed two civilians in southeastern Poland — another object crossed Poland’s eastern border and travelled for hundreds of kilometres before landing just west of Bydgoszcz, a mid-sized city in the North. This time, however, the incident was kept secret from the public. It wasn’t until April this year that the object was discovered, by a random passerby walking in a forest, and it wasn’t until last week that military analysts determined it to be a Russian Kh-55 cruise missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

A political blame game has since erupted in Poland. Both Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Defence Minister Mariusz BƂaszczak have denied being aware of the incident when it took place, with the latter implying that members of the Polish armed forces had obfuscated it in official reports at the time — a claim which seems unlikely.

However, regardless of who is to blame, the episode reveals a state hierarchy vastly underprepared to protect Poland, and by extension the rest of Nato, from Russian threats. Not only did a missile manage to fly over more than half the country, including potentially over its capital Warsaw, without being shot down, but the Polish government chose to keep emergency services in the dark rather than risking attracting media attention, despite the threat to civilian lives. After it landed, authorities allegedly called off the search without locating the missile, reportedly refusing to widen it for similar reasons — even though no one at that time knew what sort of payload the Kh-55 had been carrying. It’s a wonder no one was hurt.

The fact that the missile didn’t hit any civilian infrastructure appears to have been a stroke of luck. Some commentators in the Polish media have noted that, had it continued on its course, the missile could have hit a key LNG terminal near Poland’s border with Germany, which would have endangered the region’s energy security. And if the missile’s angle of flight had been just slightly different, we may instead have witnessed an assault on Poland’s eighth-largest city, which would have seen civilian casualties and potentially the invocation of Nato’s Article 5 against Russia.

“This was a significantly more serious incident than anything that had happened previously,” Marek ƚwierczyƄski, the head of the security desk at the Polish research institution Polityka Insight, told me. “I imagine that all the decision-makers and military leaders who knew about this were sweating from head to toe, and were praying to all the gods they knew that this wasn’t an attack, that this wasn’t war.”

The Polish government has never revealed whether contact with the Russian side ever took place, and although it’s clear in hindsight that the strike was likely a mistake, there’s no knowing if Poland’s leaders were aware of this on 16 December. With this in mind, the Polish government’s lack of communication and apparent predisposition to hiding facts to save face presents a grave risk not only for Poland’s security, but for Nato’s as well. Although we do not know the full facts of the case, and possibly never will, the strike appears to have exposed vital gaps in the bloc’s security and Poland’s crisis management readiness — gaps that could be exploited by Russia.

What we do know is this: on 16 December, during a Russian missile barrage on targets across Ukraine, the Ukrainians alerted the Polish military to a potential rocket moving towards the Polish border, likely originating over Belarus. The Poles scrambled fighter jets to track the missile. Soon enough, they lost it from their radar systems, as the missile was apparently only in the air over Poland for about half an hour. A single local police patrol was dispatched to search for the missile on the ground, and helicopters also reportedly searched from the air. Both gave up after failing to locate anything out of the ordinary, even though it remained possible that an unexploded ordinance, potentially of a nuclear variety, remained somewhere in the area.

Speculation has swirled about why a missile was able to fly for such a long distance over Nato territory without being neutralised. According to some analysts, Poland’s armed forces are not equipped for continuous tracking of low-flying airborne objects when in a peacetime posture, and it would have been nearly impossible for the jets to catch up with the missile given its head start. But Poland’s missile systems, deployed along the border and around Warsaw, were not activated to meet the threat either. Poland has purchased billions of dollars’ worth of air defence systems in the past year, and already has several US-made Patriot batteries at its disposal. According to ƚwierczyƄski, ground-based air defence systems are historically quite poor at engaging targets like this one without a dense array of radar systems at their disposal. But while Poland is still in the process of dramatically upgrading its armed forces, the impression that the nation is unable to secure its airspace with its current capabilities, outside of wartime, is deeply concerning.

There is an even more pressing problem: that political concerns were prioritised over the security of Polish citizens. According to BƂaszczak, American fighter jets were dispatched along with Polish ones on 16 December. This would have necessitated communication with US allies, making it highly improbable that the defence minister wouldn’t have been made aware of the incident at the time. Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared to confirm that such communication took place this week, making it all the more perplexing that neither Polish nor Nato authorities seemed particularly interested in locating the potentially lethal rocket.

In conversations with Stoltenberg on Monday, Polish President Andrzej Duda implicitly admitted that the system had failed, calling in particular for revised Nato search procedures in such situations. It remains to be seen whether these revisions would extend to the vital procedures that should have taken place in the minutes after the missile was first detected and before it landed.

“The most difficult and important issue is not whether some radar detected something, or if some ground-based air defence system was ready to shoot it down,” ƚwierczyƄski said, “but if on the side of Nato and Poland there was clarity on whether this was a mistake or whether this was an attack.” According to the recent Discord leaks about the war in Ukraine, the US has considerable intelligence about Moscow’s moves in the theatre of war. But even so, it would be difficult to imagine that the Americans had advance knowledge about whether this missile had been dispatched toward Poland intentionally — let alone about its payload. Therefore, it was likely that there was no such clarity about the nature of the Kh-55, making the Polish government’s lacklustre response seem all the more irresponsible.

That Poland’s government has learned so few lessons from November’s rocket incident is something that bodes ill not just for Poland, but for many Nato states that have tacitly started to rely on it as a “linchpin of regional security”. Poland has become particularly crucial to guaranteeing the security of natural gas flowing from Norway through pipelines in the Baltic Sea, and to the security of the neighbouring Baltic states. With such growing regional responsibilities, Poland increasingly has little room for error in the security sphere.

We can only hope that this incident serves as a wake-up call for Polish and Nato leaders and paves the way for greater transparency. Poland’s politicians must realise they cannot afford to sacrifice national security for the sake of their political careers. After all, it was a fortunate accident that this Kh-55 failed to cause any real damage or endanger any lives — but next time, we may not be so lucky.


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

What an inflammatory headline.
Mr. Kranz seems to have a personal axe to grind.

MichaƂ Kranz
MichaƂ Kranz
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

The headline has now been updated from the original version.

Last edited 1 year ago by MichaƂ Kranz
Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

Ah…well, good job.
I am not a PiS fan. Looks like you’re a Polish kid from Chicago. Good luck to you.
Musimy się wspierać lol

Last edited 1 year ago by Marissa M
Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

Ah…well, good job.
I am not a PiS fan. Looks like you’re a Polish kid from Chicago. Good luck to you.
Musimy się wspierać lol

Last edited 1 year ago by Marissa M
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

Maybe just another war monger.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

Maybe he is just another war monger.
If a Russian missile accidently landed on UK territory I would hope that any sensible government would hush it up or, if this were not possible, play it down.
We have enough people who seem to want to increase hostilities to what end I do not do

William Perry
William Perry
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

You’re basing your statement about Mr Kranz upon the accompanying headline? Do you not realise that writers of articles don’t write their own headlines?

Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago
Reply to  William Perry

No.
On the article itself as well.

Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago
Reply to  William Perry

No.
On the article itself as well.

MichaƂ Kranz
MichaƂ Kranz
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

The headline has now been updated from the original version.

Last edited 1 year ago by MichaƂ Kranz
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

Maybe just another war monger.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

Maybe he is just another war monger.
If a Russian missile accidently landed on UK territory I would hope that any sensible government would hush it up or, if this were not possible, play it down.
We have enough people who seem to want to increase hostilities to what end I do not do

William Perry
William Perry
1 year ago
Reply to  Marissa M

You’re basing your statement about Mr Kranz upon the accompanying headline? Do you not realise that writers of articles don’t write their own headlines?

Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

What an inflammatory headline.
Mr. Kranz seems to have a personal axe to grind.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Golly, this is way overwritten. The incident was highly unlikely to have been deliberate, because (a) it was just one missile, not part of a wave of missiles, (b) it attacked nothing, it came to earth when it ran out of fuel, (c) Putin has no interest at all in dragging NATO into his war in Ukraine. I was an accident, caused by a weapon malfunction. Well, s**t happens.
If Mr. Kranz had been around at the time, I wonder what he would have made of this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash)? It has everything – H-bombs, radiation leaks, aircraft debris raining down on a harmless fishing village, a gross violation of a neutral country’s sovereignty… But this was just a accident too.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Finally! The voice of Reason in these comments.

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Thank God Poland is trying any way to NOT go to war. If any country knows to go to the Gym but refrain being killed is Poland currently.
Seriously, find any way to keep out of this brutal war unlike the author.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Finally! The voice of Reason in these comments.

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Thank God Poland is trying any way to NOT go to war. If any country knows to go to the Gym but refrain being killed is Poland currently.
Seriously, find any way to keep out of this brutal war unlike the author.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Golly, this is way overwritten. The incident was highly unlikely to have been deliberate, because (a) it was just one missile, not part of a wave of missiles, (b) it attacked nothing, it came to earth when it ran out of fuel, (c) Putin has no interest at all in dragging NATO into his war in Ukraine. I was an accident, caused by a weapon malfunction. Well, s**t happens.
If Mr. Kranz had been around at the time, I wonder what he would have made of this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash)? It has everything – H-bombs, radiation leaks, aircraft debris raining down on a harmless fishing village, a gross violation of a neutral country’s sovereignty… But this was just a accident too.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

I’m reminded of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I’m also reminded of the explosion that destroyed Nord Stream 2. Poland isn’t the only poop show in this alliance.

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Pipeline was blown up by the Americans – its the only country that has the capabilities to carry it out. Ukraine flag sh*ggers will claim it was Russia even though they could just have switched it off at their end.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  chris Barton

Pipeline was blown up by the Americans.
I believe that the pipeline was blown up by the Americans. I have nothing to prove this, but I hate the Americans, because thy’re big and powerful, and give the Russians a free pass.
Just thought that I’d parse the above sentence for you.

Just for clarity’s sake, I don’t know who did it; I have no proof either.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

You think the Russians blew up their own pipeline?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

No idea, as I said, I don’t know.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

No idea, as I said, I don’t know.

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago

No we just need to understand that being in NATO etc makes us part of the American Empire and its interests are not always aligned with ours and its actions are seriously hurting Europe.
If not the Americans who? Ukraine, Poland etc don’t have the means to blow it up in the way it was done. Russia and Germany wouldn’t blow up their own pipeline.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

You think the Russians blew up their own pipeline?

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago

No we just need to understand that being in NATO etc makes us part of the American Empire and its interests are not always aligned with ours and its actions are seriously hurting Europe.
If not the Americans who? Ukraine, Poland etc don’t have the means to blow it up in the way it was done. Russia and Germany wouldn’t blow up their own pipeline.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  chris Barton

Pipeline was blown up by the Americans.
I believe that the pipeline was blown up by the Americans. I have nothing to prove this, but I hate the Americans, because thy’re big and powerful, and give the Russians a free pass.
Just thought that I’d parse the above sentence for you.

Just for clarity’s sake, I don’t know who did it; I have no proof either.

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Pipeline was blown up by the Americans – its the only country that has the capabilities to carry it out. Ukraine flag sh*ggers will claim it was Russia even though they could just have switched it off at their end.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

I’m reminded of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I’m also reminded of the explosion that destroyed Nord Stream 2. Poland isn’t the only poop show in this alliance.

Rob N
Rob N
1 year ago

This is a strange article. It seems perfectly politically sensible (not necessarily morally) to keep this incident quiet. What would making a big fuss out of an, almost certain, accident with no injuries or damage do?
Poland are trying to improve their military (thank God someone is) and is also trying to secure their borders from all threats inc illegal immigrants. Basically they seem to be a country with a government that cares about its own people, at least more than most of the “West”.

tr67j6bdww
tr67j6bdww
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob N

I read these kinds of comments a lot from people not in Poland. PiS is nothing to emulate or envy. They shut down opposition media, they silence opponents with spurious corruption charges, they stack courts with compliant judges. These are not friends of freedom or western values.

tr67j6bdww
tr67j6bdww
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob N

I read these kinds of comments a lot from people not in Poland. PiS is nothing to emulate or envy. They shut down opposition media, they silence opponents with spurious corruption charges, they stack courts with compliant judges. These are not friends of freedom or western values.

Rob N
Rob N
1 year ago

This is a strange article. It seems perfectly politically sensible (not necessarily morally) to keep this incident quiet. What would making a big fuss out of an, almost certain, accident with no injuries or damage do?
Poland are trying to improve their military (thank God someone is) and is also trying to secure their borders from all threats inc illegal immigrants. Basically they seem to be a country with a government that cares about its own people, at least more than most of the “West”.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago

Lots of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” going on with this writer. Bigger question; can anyone trust NATO (the yanks)?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

In what way?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

In what way?

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago

Lots of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” going on with this writer. Bigger question; can anyone trust NATO (the yanks)?

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
1 year ago

This could also be a story out of nothing. Maybe it was decided to say nothing. No need to inflame tensions and no need to admit that air defence systems are not as good as we think they are.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
1 year ago

This could also be a story out of nothing. Maybe it was decided to say nothing. No need to inflame tensions and no need to admit that air defence systems are not as good as we think they are.

tr67j6bdww
tr67j6bdww
1 year ago

“Poland’s politicians must realise they cannot afford to sacrifice national security for the sake of their political careers”

But PiS politicians are specialists at sacrificing the greater good for their political careers. It is the party’s main platform.

tr67j6bdww
tr67j6bdww
1 year ago

“Poland’s politicians must realise they cannot afford to sacrifice national security for the sake of their political careers”

But PiS politicians are specialists at sacrificing the greater good for their political careers. It is the party’s main platform.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Even the Russians have difficulty with detecting cruise missiles. Even a few rather dumb drones have caused damage in Russia. But the Poles do need to step up their game, even in “peacetime”.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Even the Russians have difficulty with detecting cruise missiles. Even a few rather dumb drones have caused damage in Russia. But the Poles do need to step up their game, even in “peacetime”.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

We should all be friends and get along ….

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

But how would American arm’s manufactures make money? They are already trying to lay the ground for war with China.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

I’d love to. Have you found the magic wand, though.

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

But how would American arm’s manufactures make money? They are already trying to lay the ground for war with China.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

I’d love to. Have you found the magic wand, though.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

We should all be friends and get along ….

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
1 year ago

Even if perhaps over-hyped, this incident shows, for me, that be it in military, political and economic domains, Poland cannot be trusted as a strong ally. They keep enjoying incredible help from the EU and NATO and fiddling with Russia when this suits them.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Jacques Rossat

Poland is one of the few countries which spends over 2% of GDP on defence and much more soon.
Going by your name you might be French.
It is France which constantly undermines NATO with its plans for European army.
And it is France which together with Germany undermined Europe energy and military security by appeasing Russian aggression of not just Ukraine but Georgia.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
1 year ago
Reply to  Jacques Rossat

What this incident shows for me is that all it would take for a full blown global war to start would be one mistake that creates a devastating outcome. I suspect the odds of such an occurrence are greater than most of us realize.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Jacques Rossat

Poland is one of the few countries which spends over 2% of GDP on defence and much more soon.
Going by your name you might be French.
It is France which constantly undermines NATO with its plans for European army.
And it is France which together with Germany undermined Europe energy and military security by appeasing Russian aggression of not just Ukraine but Georgia.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
1 year ago
Reply to  Jacques Rossat

What this incident shows for me is that all it would take for a full blown global war to start would be one mistake that creates a devastating outcome. I suspect the odds of such an occurrence are greater than most of us realize.

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
1 year ago

Even if perhaps over-hyped, this incident shows, for me, that be it in military, political and economic domains, Poland cannot be trusted as a strong ally. They keep enjoying incredible help from the EU and NATO and fiddling with Russia when this suits them.