Poland has convened emergency talks with its Nato allies after two of its citizens were killed by what Warsaw said was a “Russian-made missile” strike in the countryside near Ukraine.
The Polish foreign ministry said the two people died in the village of Przewodów after the missile hit at 3.40pm local time. Photographs posted on social media showed a damaged farm vehicle lying on its side next to a large crater. Local media reported the casualties were farm workers.
A Polish intelligence official told the Financial Times that investigators were probing whether the missile was fired by Russia. If confirmed, it would be the first time a Nato country had been hit by a missile since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Russia’s defence ministry denied responsibility, adding claims the missile was fired by its forces were a “deliberate provocation with the goal of escalating the situation”. Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau summoned the Russian ambassador for “immediate detailed explanations”, the Polish foreign ministry said.
The White House said US president Joe Biden, who is in Bali for a summit of G20 leaders, was “briefed on the reports out of Poland” and spoke with Polish president Andrzej Duda. But both the Pentagon and the US National Security Council said they could not corroborate claims Russia was behind the strike.
Duda offered his “assessment” of the explosion in the call with Biden, according to the White House, while Biden offered “full US support for and assistance with Poland’s investigation” and reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment to Nato”. Nato members such as Poland can invoke the transatlantic treaty’s Article 5, which would require other Nato members to come to its defence.
The explosion in eastern Poland came amid a Russian barrage of missiles fired on Ukrainian cities which damaged energy infrastructure as well as civilian buildings.
Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, were quick to blame Russia for the Polish strike, though they offered no specific evidence to back the claims. “Russian missiles hit Poland,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to his country on Tuesday evening, adding that Moscow had launched 90 missiles targeting Ukraine.
Zelenskyy also spoke with Duda, and in a tweet afterwards wrote: “We exchanged available information and are clarifying all the facts. Ukraine, Poland, all of Europe and the world must be fully protected from terrorist Russia.”
Leaders of several Nato countries in central and eastern Europe warned that the strike would mark a significant escalation of the conflict if the Polish investigation proved the Kremlin was behind the strike.
Czech prime minister Petr Fiala said: “If Poland confirms that the missiles also hit its territory, it will be another escalation on the part of Russia. We stand firmly behind our ally in the EU and Nato.”
“Russian missiles hitting the territory of the Nato member is a very dangerous escalation by the Kremlin,” Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs tweeted. “Latvia expresses full solidarity with our ally Poland and will support any action deemed appropriate by Poland. Russia will bear full responsibility for all the consequences.”
Two Nato officials told the FT that the situation had provoked concern within the alliance but not panic. Warsaw was likely to first trigger Article 4 of the treaty, which concerns discussions over a potential threat to an alliance member, before Article 5.
Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defence minister, tweeted that Article 4 was “in place”.
In a further sign of the potential for the conflict to spill over, Moldova reported on Tuesday that it had lost electricity after the missile strikes in Ukraine, as a power line linking the two countries had automatically been disconnected.
Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba called for a “collective response” to Russia’s missile strikes, including a Nato summit with Ukrainian participation to craft further joint action, including the provision of fighter jets.
“Today, protecting Ukraine’s skies means protecting Nato,” Kuleba said.
Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, called on the west to provide further air defence systems to protect the country against Russia’s weeks of air strikes.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington and Henry Foy in Bali