Poland: From Missile Crisis to the European Question
Fabio Turco 7 December 2022

A crisis was averted, or almost. The whole world held its breath on the night between the 15th and 16th of November after a Ukrainian anti-aircraft rocket fell on the Polish village of Przewodów, a few kilometers from the border, killing two people. It was an unprecedented incident in a NATO country that, until the official version of events was released, raised fears of a dangerous escalation. Had the material responsibility of the Russian military been established, the Atlantic Alliance would have found itself in the uncomfortable situation of having to work out some kind of response. Instead, on November 16th morning, US President Joe Biden played down the tension by deeming it unlikely that the missile had originated from Russian positions.

The story was confirmed just a few hours later by Polish President Andrzej Duda, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The call to activate NATO’s Article 4, which provides for the initiation of consultations if one of the member countries considers its territorial integrity, national security or political independence threatened, was thus averted. The only malcontent was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said he was sure the rocket was not fired by his army. After some friction, Poland agreed to have investigators from Kiev flank those already at the scene to clarify the dynamics of the events.

The home front

The events in Przewodów also risked repercussions on the domestic front, in a country notoriously split between the conservatives of the PiS (Law and Justice) and the liberals of the PO (Civic Platform). However, on the Ukrainian issue, the country’s sentiment is transversal, and so far the government’s line of total support for Kyiv’s demands has also been supported by the opposition. Again there has been no exception, and the political class, regardless of affinity, has shown great maturity at a time when it would have been easy to fall prey to panic. On the one hand, the executive has been cautious, refraining from making any assumptions until the end of the Extraordinary Security and Defense Council. This allowed for the facts to come out and to avoid any statements that could have had unpredictable consequences. On the other hand, calm was also maintained in the large cities, almost all of which are in PO hands. In Warsaw, Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski in turn convened a crisis unit and appealed to the population to rely only on verified information. In retrospect, assessments of the incident were also in agreement. PO leader Donald Tusk espoused the government’s position, which puts moral responsibility for the events entirely on Russia.

The only dissonant voice is that of the radical right-wing Confederation of the Polish Crown. According to its leader Grzegorz Braun, Kiev should have apologized for the incident and that the Polish government did not behave transparently, stalling in getting an official communication out to the public. However, the Confederation’s position, which has held a critical stance toward Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, remains in the minority. According to a United Surveys poll conducted a few days after the incident, 80 percent of Poles continue to support their country’s commitment to Ukraine, 68 percent say they support taking in war refugees, 58 percent support sending small arms, and about 30 percent support sending heavy artillery. Numbers that still tell of great momentum toward the Ukrainian cause.

What about defense?

The only point of friction between the PO and the PiS on the issue was related to the defense system: the rocket hitting Polish soil was not preceded by any warning. The government’s explanation was that the systems in place did not identify the Ukrainian anti-aircraft rocket as a threat, since it was a stray object and not a missile aimed at a target. A justification that does not convince the opposition.

Jakub Kumoch, head of the Presidential Office for International Policy, dismissed the idea that sirens might sound whenever there is an air alert in western Ukraine. “The sound would just wake people up and disturb them,” said Kumoch, who believes it is highly unlikely that an event like last month’s could be repeated. In the meantime, however, the government has raised the alert and monitoring systems of the airspace, which are patrolled together with NATO allies. One change was a partial opening to the German government’s offer to provide it with Patriot missiles to defend its eastern borders. Until now Warsaw had always been unwilling to accept aid of any kind from Berlin. Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, after initially supporting their deployment on Polish territory, called for their transfer to the western regions of Ukraine, which was hit heavily by Russian bombardment.

The European question

Once the spotlight moved on from the Przewodów crisis, attention turns once again to the eternal tug-of-war between Poland and the European Commission over respect for the rule of law. Brussels demands that Poland resolve the issue over its justice system before releasing the 36 billion euros from the Recovery Fund to which it is entitled. In order to do so, so-called “milestones,” i.e., demands that the independence of judges be respected and the system of appointments of Supreme Court judges be reformed will have to be met. In addition, the Commission also out into question the disbursement of the 2021-27 cohesion funds, which are worth an additional 75 billion.

Warsaw disagrees. It believes that the changes made in the bill presented by Duda are sufficient to unblock the situation. Talks continue amid ups and downs. About ten days ago, the newly appointed Minister of European Affairs Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk flew to Brussels, to discuss the issue. A positive meeting according to the European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, who spoke of “constructive dialogue.” Stressing that Poland is moving in the right direction, she nevertheless reiterated that Warsaw must meet all the Commission’s demands. Szynkowski vel Sęk, once back in the Polish capital employed a different tone, pointing out that there are lines that cannot be crossed: “Nothing can be introduced that is unconstitutional, that can undermine the prerogatives of the president to appoint judges, and that can go beyond the competences of the European treaties.”

The missile crisis has highlighted the difficulties of untangling a real Gordian knot. European issues cannot be considered without keeping in mind the risks Poland faces given its geographical position – it is the only country that shares a border with Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation at the same time – and the role it is playing in the conflict. In its assessments, the European Commission cannot overlook Poland’s efforts in terms of hosting and providing logistical and military support to Kyiv. Warsaw is well aware of this and seeks to use it to its advantage. However, time is running out. The economic situation on the banks of the Vistula is far from rosy.

Inflation hit 17.9 percent in October and is forecast to continue rising at least until the last quarter of next year. Winter has just begun and the cost of energy is on people’s minds. In addition, elections are on the horizon at a time when polls are showing the PiS on the decline. If it came to a vote tomorrow an eventual united opposition would win. The vote is just under a year away, still enough time to try to straighten things out, but still not enough time to wrest a deal from Brussels.


Cover Photo:  Mourners attend the funeral of one of the two victims in Przewodow on November 19th, 2022 (photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP).


Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents.

If you like our analyses, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month)   and consider supporting our work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)