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Examining the missile mishap in Poland and the lessons to take away

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Stephen Flanagan is with us now to discuss this further. He's a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and a former senior director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Stephen, welcome.

STEPHEN FLANAGAN: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So as we heard, one of the big concerns since the start of the Russian war on Ukraine has been the possibility of escalation into a wider conflict. And that missile strike on a Polish village accident - appears to be an accident, but it elevated those fears. What did we learn from NATO's response to that incident and the process for determining whether the alliance has been attacked?

FLANAGAN: Well, I think we did - you point out exactly the risks. And we did see NATO respond, I think, in a very effective way in trying to address and clarify what the situation was and to reassure, particularly its Polish allies, who were - the Polish allies who were the victim of this - of the effects of the missile incident, about the commitment of the alliance to Polish security. But the - overall, the incident underscores that the risks, as you say, of this wider war as - extending into a number of European countries, including others who are NATO allies, as these hundreds of Russian strikes continue to escalate...

FADEL: Yeah.

FLANAGAN: ...Across the - all of Ukraine, and particularly out to western Ukraine, where some of these border areas are. But it - but the way the incident went down underscores the need for close consultations with allies, but also with Ukraine. As we see, as your reporter just noted, some differences between, now, Ukraine and the Polish and U.S. assessment as to what exactly happened and whose air defense missile it was or whether it was some other missile that, perhaps, the Russians had fired.

FADEL: You know, that begs the question, you know? Right now, Ukraine is saying, wait a second. It wasn't a Ukrainian mistake. That's not what the evidence was. Is this just a way so that NATO allies aren't just dragged into a bigger war?

FLANAGAN: No. I think Ukraine just wants to be able to have access to the site to try to help and be engaged in the assessment. And the Polish president suggested that right now, the investigation was being led by his government and the United States. But President Zelenskyy has asked for access. And I expect that they will share all the information that they have so that this can be clarified because of the importance of - that both Poland and the United States and other NATO allies are providing extensive security assistance and other military support to Ukraine. So they want to clarify this, I think, as soon as possible.

FADEL: As we heard, NATO's still putting the blame at Russia's door for invading and attacking Ukraine in the first place. What do you think Russia took away from watching NATO's really cautious approach in its reaction?

FLANAGAN: Well, I think the Russians first saw NATO - a prompt response from NATO in gathering consultations, trying to make an assessment. There were some - you know, the initial and preliminary suspicions, particularly the Poles and other Central-East Europeans, was that this must be a Russian missile strike - and particularly coming along that border where there are shipments of material going into Ukraine with Western security assistance, that perhaps this was a warning shot from the Russians. But the Russians saw that NATO made a deliberate assessment of the situation and then articulated a statement, as you saw yesterday in Secretary General Stoltenberg's press conference, where he said it did appear to be an errant Ukrainian air defense system.

Nevertheless, the Russians tried to capitalize this and suggest that, well, we see the hotheads in the West are already trying to stoke further tensions and that the West is trying to escalate this conflict, so a bit - turning things a bit on its head. But I think, as your reporter noted, Secretary Stoltenberg said, make no mistake who's responsible for this. Ukraine wouldn't be firing off - if this is, in fact, a Ukrainian air defense missile that went errant, they wouldn't be firing those missiles off if the country wasn't under a vicious attack by the Russian military forces.

FADEL: Does it make it more or less likely that Russia might attempt to test NATO's resolve?

FLANAGAN: Well, I think NATO met the initial test. It certainly is one that - this is certainly one scenario, one that we've looked at in some of our analysis among my colleagues of potential escalation scenarios. And this idea of striking, perhaps, one of the transshipment points of security assistance or a couple of test strikes along the border with Ukraine against NATO members to see how the alliance does respond is certainly one that needs watching.

But that's also another reason and one of the other takeaways I have from this event, is that it is important to maintain a line of communications with the Russians to manage these escalation risks. And that has continued. General Milley has talked to his counterpart, General Gerasimov, periodically. We know that CIA Director Burns was in Moscow recently. There are other high-level ways of communicating and trying to manage and ensure that this fear that all the countries in NATO have of a wider war doesn't emerge, even as the United States and the other NATO allies continue to support Ukraine in its effort to end the Russian aggression.

FADEL: Now, Article 5 of NATO's charter regards an armed attack on one member as an attack on all. It's been invoked just once by the U.S. after 9/11. Could a missile falling on a NATO ally, errant or not, from Russia be enough to invoke Article 5?

FLANAGAN: It could, indeed. And, indeed, the Poles initially had indicated that they might like to ask for what's sometimes seen as a preliminary to invoking an Article 5 and Article 4 consultations within the alliance. There was a meeting at the North Atlantic Council on Wednesday. I don't know - I don't believe they did actually invoke that other article. But clearly, if there were a direct attack, it would be - such as you describe, that would conceivably invoke Article 5 commitments.

FADEL: Stephen Flanagan is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. Thank you for your time.

FLANAGAN: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.