"If this was an accident, the instinct in Warsaw and Washington will be caution and restraint, with Article 4 discussions signaling the Russians not to screw up again," Cipher Brief Expert and former Acting Director of CIA John McLaughlin told us.
“If this was a deliberate provocation, and we will almost certainly know before long, then the Alliance will be provoked and will have to respond in some way. The default impulse will probably be to avoid getting into a tit-for-tat between NATO and Russia. But we might relax some of the cautions we’ve given the Ukrainians about not hitting certain Russian targets or other redlines.”
“We don’t know enough yet about the strike,” cautioned Cipher Brief Expert and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis (Ret.). “But assuming it was an errant missile from Russia, this provides a strong motivation to reinforce air defense along the NATO-Ukraine border at a minimum. It could also cause NATO to provide MIG-29 aircraft to the Ukrainians from Poland, with US backfilling with F-16s. And it may cause a serious discussion about putting a no-fly zone up over Ukraine, manned by NATO fighters.”
“It is, literally, a warning shot about the possibility of escalation,” Cipher Brief Expert and former Chief of MI6 Sir Alex Younger told us. “But I’m confident that Putin understands that deliberate escalation is very much not in his interest. I’d add that even if it was a Ukrainian air defence missile, the blame still lies firmly with Russia.”
What Did We Learn?
Among other things, we learned how dangerously close a single missile can come to escalating an already tense situation to a higher level of global conflict. We learned how quickly information is shared and we saw how NATO countries were at least thinking about responding, if the missile had in fact, been fired by Russia. While the lessons from this single incident are worth noting, so too is the bigger picture.
“In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the response of the West was inadequate. Russia got to hold on to 20% of the nation of Georgia,” Cipher Brief Expert and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Phil Breedlove (Ret.) told us. “The western world rewarded Russia’s bad behavior. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and took 11 or 12% of Ukrainian territory. Moscow threatened to huff and puff and blow our house down with World War III or their nukes. Once again, the west capitulated and allowed them to hang on to a big chunk of Ukraine. For the second time, we rewarded bad behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re back now for a third time. Russia has seized another big part of Ukraine. And when the west starts to respond, Russia has huffed and puffed and threatened to blow our house down with World War III and nukes. And they fully expect us to capitulate a third time. We in the West are at a point of decision, are we going to, for the third time, reward bad behavior? The West and the Western world have a decision to make. Mr. Putin is huffing and he’s puffing and he’s threatening to blow our house down and we need to decide how we’re going to respond. Here’s what I know for sure: If we capitulate and allow Russia to hold onto even more Ukrainian territory, we’ll be back here again in 2025 and 2028 and 2031 and 2033. It’s time for us to step up.”