“I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike,” Zelensky told reporters in Kyiv on Wednesday.
That emphatic statement sets up an unusual dispute between Ukraine and two of its most important Western partners. Both President Joe Biden and his Polish counterpart have signaled their growing confidence a Ukrainian anti-air defense missile landed in Poland during an intense Russian bombardment of Ukraine.
“From the information that we and our allies have, it was an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union, an old rocket, and there is no evidence that it was launched by the Russian side,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said Wednesday. “It is highly probable that it was fired by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense.”
The course of the dispute has left Western observers “puzzled,” as one senior European official confessed, given the general confidence in both Ukrainian and NATO intelligence capabilities regarding such issues.
“The Ukrainians have very good data collection — they have good radars, they track every single missile,” former U.S. Ambassador Kurt Volker, the State Department’s special envoy for the Ukraine crisis prior to then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment scandal, told the Washington Examiner. “I’ve been to their headquarters where they do this — [it’s] very sophisticated. They know what’s going on. I’m sure the Poles do as well. I’m sure we do as well. So the Poles and Ukrainians need to sit down with their experts and look at their data … and come up with what they think actually happened.”
The public controversy has sown doubts about motivated reasoning affecting one side or another, as an assessment that blames Moscow would reinforce Ukraine’s long-standing desire for NATO to “close the sky” to Russian aerial assaults.
“For Ukrainians, this was an opportunity to convince the allies to have some sort of protection or air control, actually, over Ukraine, because these missile attacks by Russia on Ukrainian [energy] infrastructure targets,” a second senior European official said. “It makes the situation, from the humanitarian point of view, extremely complicated for Ukrainians. So they are desperately looking for a way to solve this issue, so it’s quite understandable why they are so insist[ent] that this was a Russian attack.”
On the other hand, the United States and NATO allies have their own incentives to downplay the likelihood that Russia launched the missile and thereby avoid a crisis with Moscow.
“Those claims, at the moment, will calm down the situation,” the first senior European official said.
In any case, some prominent nongovernmental analysts have studied the images of the reported missile debris in Poland and concluded that the images are traceable to Ukrainian missile stockpiles.
“We analyzed the available photos of fragments and came to a clear conclusion that they belong to the 48D6 motor of the 5V55-series missile of the S-300 AD system — a Ukrainian one,” the Ukraine Weapons Tracker project concluded.
Western leaders have made a point to emphasize that they still hold Russia responsible for the tragedy given the context of the incident.
“Russia bears responsibility for what happened in Poland yesterday because this is a direct result of the ongoing war and the wave of attacks from Russia against Ukraine yesterday,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. “And of course Ukraine has the right to shoot down those missiles that are targeting Ukrainian citizens and critical Ukrainian infrastructure.”
Stoltenberg added that “all allies agree on the assessment” that it was a Ukrainian missile, a conclusion that alleviates the need for a standoff between NATO and Russia.
“We have no indication that this was a deliberate attack, and of course that has consequences for what kind of responses that we need to take,” Stoltenberg said. “We have no indication [that] this was a deliberate attack or that Russia is planning any offensive military actions against NATO allies. But we’ve also agreed that Russia bears the ultimate responsibility. They are responsible for the war in Ukraine that has caused this situation.”
Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have determined to argue the point. “I want us to be fair, and if it was the use of our air defense, then I want that evidence,” he said. “First, the investigation, access, and data that you have.”
Duda, the Polish president, did not immediately endorse the idea of including the Ukrainians in the investigation.
“The proceedings are conducted by Polish and American experts,” he said Wednesday. “If anyone was to be allowed to take part in these proceedings, both parties would have to agree.”