The missile incident in Poland, in which two people were killed, should serve as a warning: the Ukraine conflict could potentially spill over into a wider war between nuclear-armed Russia and NATO. The Russian invasion of its neighbouring country and NATO’s decision to back Ukraine with military supplies have brought the two sides to an eyeball-to-eyeball situation, with only a spark needed for a conflagration. Immediately after the missile exploded inside Polish territory, which is a part of NATO, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed Russia, calling it an attack on the West’s collective security and a significant escalation. Russia quickly distanced itself from the incident, but at least for a few hours, the world was on edge amid fears of this incident triggering an open war between Russia and NATO. But NATO leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, responded firmly and responsibly. Mr. Biden, who was in Bali to attend the G20 meeting, publicly refuted Mr. Zelenskyy’s claim, saying it was unlikely that the missile came from Russia, which Polish and NATO authorities confirmed later. What hit Poland was a Russian-made S300 defence missile, most likely fired by Ukraine against a Russian missile, they said. While their sober response avoided a showdown, the incident has highlighted the risks of this hair-trigger situation.
Mr. Zelenskyy’s comment was irresponsible. His anger towards Russia is justifiable given that his country is being bombarded on a daily basis, but as the President of Ukraine, what he says will have consequences, and he should wait for the facts and respond cautiously when it comes to NATO-Russia tensions. Russia should understand that Ukraine is now a tinderbox. To overcome its battlefield failures, Russia is now deliberately targeting Ukrainian infrastructure with repeated missile attacks. A misfire could turn the nightmare into reality. All stakeholders, primarily Russia which started the war, have the responsibility to put in place the guardrails against escalation. They should turn the diffusion of the Polish crisis into an opportunity for open dialogue. As the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, pointed out, the conflict could enter a frozen stage during winter. Despite Ukraine’s territorial gains, it is unlikely its forces will be able to expel Russians from all captured territories through force, he said, making his case for talks. Mr. Zelenskyy, reportedly under U.S. pressure, changed his earlier position that he would not hold talks with Mr. Putin. So, there is a small window for de-escalation. Russia must respond with concrete proposals and create conditions for a constructive dialogue.