Within the United States, one scrambles to blur the facts as the Russia-Ukraine war spills over into NATO territory


President Joe Biden was sleeping on the other side of the world when aides woke him up in the middle of the night with breaking news: A missile hit Poland Two people were killed.

By 5:30 a.m. local time in Bali, where he was Chief Attending the G20 summitBiden, still in a dress shirt and khakis, was on the phone with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda seeking clarification on where the missile actually came from — a fact crucial due to the potentially dangerous implications of a Russian missile strike for NATO. ally.

A US official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was traveling with Biden, was woken up by his dead man around 4 a.m. local time with news of the explosion — news that most US officials only found out from public reporting and conversations with Polish officials.

Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to their Polish counterparts and joined Biden for the call with Duda.

Polish officials first began hearing about a possible explosion in the eastern border village of Przedo at around 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, or 11 p.m. Bali time, the sources said, and the information began flowing publicly and was briefed to allies around 1 p.m. ET. , or 2 a.m. on my mind.

As morning approached and more intelligence arrived, it became clear to American officials examining satellite-based intelligence systems and talking to their Polish counterparts that the missile, which landed on a Polish farm in the far east of the country, appeared to have been launched by Ukraine As part of the air defense systems.

After several hours of anxiety, Biden was the first to ease some of the tension, telling reporters that preliminary information indicated that the missile was not launched by Russia.

TOPSHOT - US President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Poland after meeting with the G7 and European leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian island of Bali on November 16, 2022.

The relief among American officials was palpable. Contrary to their worst fears, one official said, initial intelligence indicated that Russia had not intentionally attacked Poland. But for Biden and his advisers, this incident still represents a situation they have long feared: an unintended strike on NATO territory, the ramifications and consequences of which remain obscure.

With the situation so bad, Biden’s advisers have urged calm and patience, including Ukrainian officials.

About an hour after news of the incident broke, Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening address that “Russian missiles hit Poland,” calling it a “very big escalation” that required a response.

Sources familiar with the call said Sullivan quickly called Zelensky’s office after those remarks, urging officials to be more careful about how they speak about the incident. A source familiar with the matter said Biden and Zelensky did not speak on Tuesday night, despite requests from the Ukrainian leader to arrange a call.

The United States and Poland quickly agreed to work closely in investigating the strike, a US official said. CIA Director Bill Burns met with Duda in Warsaw on Wednesday night. Just hours earlier, Burns had been holed up in the US Embassy in Kyiv as Russian missiles hit the city.

But the incident has also created some cracks in the West’s alliance with Ukraine.

Both Biden and Duda have said publicly that the missile appears to have originated from a Ukrainian air defense system — a claim Zelensky has continued to vehemently deny, to the frustration of Polish officials, the sources said.

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks during a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, November 16, 2022.

And although Biden spoke with Duda and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the aftermath of the strike, and held emergency talks with G20 world leaders, the president had not spoken directly with Zelensky by noon Wednesday, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. . .

Instead, Sullivan spoke to Zelensky’s chief of staff in the hours after the explosion, according to the sources, and Blinken spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.

Zelensky said on Wednesday that Ukraine had also asked to join the investigation team, made up of US and Polish officials, to inspect the site of the missile strike. “We must participate in the investigation,” he told reporters. But this request has not yet been approved.

Back in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in a meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley when an aide interrupted on the news of the explosion, calling all three officials Poles. their counterparts soon after.

Shortly thereafter, around 2 p.m., a press conference was held with Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Bat Rider was only minutes away. But some Pentagon officials just heard about a missile hitting Poland from the media, and the Pentagon had no confirmation that a Russian missile had hit NATO territory.

Pentagon officials had to decide whether to go through with it, knowing that they had almost no information to offer about what instantly became the most important item of the day.

Eventually, one official told CNN, the press shop went ahead, arguing that canceling the press conference at the last minute would signal the exact kind of panic officials were eager to avoid.

As Ryder stood on the stand, he answered frequently asked questions about the missile for which he had no answers yet.

Meanwhile, Milley was in his office in the Pentagon’s outer ring, instructing his staff to line up phone calls, officials said. First it was its Polish counterpart, soon followed by its Ukrainian counterpart. Milley jumped from one call to another, speaking to other defense chiefs, as well as to Gen. Chris Cavoli, the head of European Command, who was also working on the phones.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon on November 16, 2022

Milley’s staff worked to push his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, to the line. The two last spoke at the end of October, one of the only times they have held talks since the Russian invasion began. This time, however, there was no call, and the two did not speak on Tuesday night.

That evening, Mellie and Austin update Biden on what they learned about the accident.

By Wednesday, several senior US officials said publicly that the intelligence indicated the explosion was caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile that fell in Poland by mistake. The official said the United States shared the classified information with allies ahead of the North Atlantic Council meeting Wednesday morning at NATO headquarters.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement: “We saw nothing that contradicted President Duda’s initial assessment that this explosion was most likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile that unfortunately fell in Poland.”

Sources familiar with the intelligence said that in early inspections of the blast site, debris was found that appeared to be from a Soviet-era S-300 missile. Several US and NATO officials said the initial assessment was that a Ukrainian air defense missile attempted to intercept a Russian missile but missed and landed in Poland.

“From the information we and our allies have, it is an S-300 missile made in the Soviet Union, which is an old missile, and there is no evidence that it was launched from the Russian side,” Duda told a news conference on Wednesday. . It is very likely that it was launched by the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense.”

One of the officials said that the United States also determined that the Russian missile likely continued on its trajectory and hit or fell close to its intended target.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the G20 from his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 15.

Zelensky insisted on Wednesday afternoon that the missile was not fired by Ukrainian forces. “I have no doubt that it was not our missile,” he told reporters in Kyiv, citing reports he received from the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Air Force.

Zelensky also expressed frustration that Ukrainian officials were not allowed to join the joint Polish-American investigation at the site, and said he wanted to see “the number on the missile, because all missiles have numbers”.

“Do we have the right to be part of the investigation team?” Zelensky said. “naturally.”

On Thursday, Zelensky confirmed that Ukrainian investigators would be allowed access to the site of the strike, and acknowledged that Ukraine had launched an air defense missile. “I don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure. The world doesn’t know. But I’m sure it’s a Russian missile, and I’m sure we launched it from air defense systems,” Zelensky said.

He added that only after the investigation will it be possible to draw conclusions about any missile that fell on the territory of Poland.

This story has been updated with comments made by Zelensky on Thursday

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