When the Russia-Ukraine war spills over to its neighbours

The Russia-Ukraine war risked being escalated further on November 15, when a missile killed two people in Poland. As world leaders scrambled to figure out where it came from, many were concerned that the conflict had moved to the brink of World War III. NATO leaders said they did not believe the missile was a Russian attack, but rather a Ukrainian missile accidentally shot into Polish territory. But should more countries be worried about the war spilling over onto their soil?

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net. 

Halla Mohieddeen: The Russia-Ukraine war just entered its tenth month, but last week, another country got drawn into the conflict.

Newsreel: Violence from the war in Ukraine has now reportedly spilled over into neighbouring Poland.

Newsreel: Two people were killed when a missile fell in a Polish village near the border with Ukraine.

Halla Mohieddeen: The missile that hit Poland caused ripples in the back rooms of NATO and the G20 meeting in Bali, with world leaders trying to figure out where it came from. And if, as some believed, the missile had been an attack from Russia, many were worried it could take the conflict to the brink of World War III. So, where did the missile that hit Poland come from and how worried should other countries in the region be that the same could happen to them?

[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.

[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: When a missile killed two farmers in Poland last week, many of the world’s top leaders were in Bali, Indonesia for the G20 summit. So was Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor, James Bays. Ashish Malhotra, a producer for The Take, caught up with James to find out what it was like in Bali when the news trickled in.

Aerial view taken on November 17, 2022 shows the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine on November 15, 2022.
Aerial view taken on November 17, 2022 shows the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine on November 15, 2022. [Wojtek Radwanski and Damien Simonart/AFP]
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Ashish Malhotra: Take us through sort of the behind the scenes as this news unfolded while you were at the G20. What was it like being there when this news came in?

James Bays: Well, the G20 this year was always going to be about Ukraine. On the first day, the world leaders then went to bed, but most of them were woken very early, before dawn, with the news that the missile had hit Polish territory, which sounded like a major, major development in the war. I myself was woken up by the news desk and told, “We need you to go live.”

Newsreel: Our diplomatic editor James Bays is joining us now from the G20 summit in Bali, where the leaders have been discussing the explosion. James, I know…

James Bays: “We need you to tell us the latest and we need you to assess what this actually means.” We learned that President Biden had been woken and had made a phone call to President Duda of Poland at 5:30 in the morning local time to try and get the latest information. What was interesting in those early moments was the White House was very, very cautious. It said, we are going to be cautious, we’re going to discover the facts. We’re going to discover exactly what happened here. The speculation, of course, was this was a Russian missile that had hit the farm on the Polish border, killing two people. And that would’ve been a major, major development in the war. It would’ve been the first time someone had been killed in a NATO country as a result of the Russian war in Ukraine.

Halla Mohieddeen: James told Ashish that the developments in Poland caused a major shift in the focus of the summit.

James Bays: The actual summit was supposed to be talking about climate change. And in fact, all the world leaders were going to plant mangroves. That was the photo opportunity that the world was going to see while they talked about the climate crisis. But that actually was postponed by an hour, and some of the world leaders decided to have a meeting, which was interesting. A meeting chaired by President Biden, and at the end of that meeting, they issued a statement condemning the missile attacks, which had also taken place on Ukraine, and saying there needed to be an investigation into what had happened in Poland. There was no condemnation of Russia in that statement. And the reason why, I think emerged just a few minutes later, when President Biden was speaking to reporters.

Halla Mohieddeen: That’s when James got an update through what’s called a pool report, where reporters who follow the US president closely share information with other journalists about developments on major issues.

James Bays: The first I learned was when I got a pool report that came through, giving a brief transcript of what President Biden had said. I quickly skimmed through this report, but at the end of it was the key bit of information. It said, “Asked whether it was too early to say the missile came from Russia, Biden said there’s preliminary information that contests that. I don’t want to say that until we completely investigate. It is unlikely in the lines of the trajectory that it was fired from Russia, but we’ll see.” And at that moment, the story completely changed. The fact there was US doubt of the fact this was a Russian missile, which until then was the working assumption of, I think all the world leaders, but also of all the reporters who were covering it. And that moment the story changed and clearly, I think there was a sense of relief among the world leaders that a really serious situation had probably been averted.

Halla Mohieddeen: The fears of escalation stemmed from the idea that if Poland, a member of NATO, had been attacked – then all of NATO would be seen as under attack. It’s a principle steeped in Articles 4 and 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, something Ashish asked James about.

Ashish Malhotra: Can you just outline what Article 4 and 5 of the NATO founding treaty are and why they’re important? What the stakes involved are when it comes to these articles.

James Bays: Yeah, no, I mean, that is why we were so concerned about the situation. Because if you look back at the Washington Treaty or the North Atlantic Treaty – it’s got two names – it has what is often known as the all for one clause, which is Article 5. And that says, if any NATO nation is attacked, they can consider it an attack on all of them. Which meant potentially that if Poland had been attacked by Russia, it might be considered an attack on all of the NATO members. That potentially, could have meant that NATO was at war with Russia.

Ashish Malhotra: Right.

James Bays: Now, there’s quite a few caveats here.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

James Bays: There’s a long process to declaring Article 5. It’s only ever happened in history once, and that was in 2001 after 9/11.

George Robertson: The attack against the United States of America on the 11th of September was directed from abroad and shall therefore be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.

James Bays: And even though you might think that was a pretty clear-cut case of an attack on the United States, actually, it took about a month for NATO to decide to invoke Article 5.

Ashish Malhotra: Yeah.

James Bays: So, it’s something that they’re very very careful about doing and NATO takes a lot of steps. I mean, they have intensive plans. They have a procedure. They have a step-by-step procedure that NATO follows. They war game things. They plan for everything. I’m sure it was something that they had thought might happen. What will we do if Russia accidentally hits a NATO country?

Ashish Malhotra: Right.

James Bays: Because that was the working theory of most of the journalists because Russia was denying this. Russia didn’t say, we’ve just launched an attack on Poland. They said, no, no, we didn’t do it. So, I think even if it had been an accident, Article 5 probably would not have been invoked. But I think also, the fact that NATO very cautiously investigated this. And then as soon as it knew that it was not a Russian or a missile fired from Russia, they put out statements. And I think that is probably something that can reassure us a bit. But on the other hand, this shows how a mistake, a miscalculation, could turn into something really serious. In fact, horrendously serious.

A military member carries a picture of one of two victims of a missile that hit a southeastern Polish village near the border with Ukraine, during his funeral in Przewodow, Poland November 19, 2022.
A military member carries a picture of one of two victims of a missile that hit a southeastern Polish village near the border with Ukraine, during his funeral in Przewodow, Poland November 19, 2022. Kacper Pempel/Reuters]
[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen:  Those fears were, of course, felt in Poland as well. Bartosz Weglarczyk is the editor-in-chief of Onet, the most popular news website in Poland. He says tensions were high as the news came in.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: The first news we got was about 6PM local time. And the news was that something happened in southeast Poland, very close to the border with Ukraine. And at first, we had no idea what happened. We just knew something bad happened. Then the first news came actually from the local hospital. And the news was two people died, and a missile hit something in Poland. We still didn’t know what. So, you know, the first thing we thought was, holy cow, If it’s a Russian missile – if it was shot at Poland, that’s World War III, right? That’s NATO against Russia.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Bartosz Weglarczyk: We still had no idea what happened officially because the Polish government didn’t say anything till like, after 11PM local time. They didn’t want to say anything because they didn’t – you know, the key question was, is it a Russian missile? Or maybe it’s a Ukrainian missile? So the first few hours, we were just gasping for air. We were just, you know, looking for any kind of info.

Halla Mohieddeen:  As James told Ashish, NATO leaders were quick to say that they did not believe the missile came from Russia and that it was probably a misfire from Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was quick to deny that suggestion, and an investigation is ongoing. But regardless of where the missile came from, Bartosz says most Poles blame Russia.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: When we found out it’s not a Russian attack, you know, we breathe a little bit. Everybody said, well, it was a misfire. At the same time it’s still a tragedy. Two citizens of Poland died. So, I do believe there should be repercussions. And I do believe there will be repercussions on the side of NATO and European Union. It’s not Ukrainians’ fault that they were attacked by Russia and it was a misfire. Misfires happen. The only people to be blamed are Russians who started the war, and that’s the feeling probably of majority of Polish public opinion.

Halla Mohieddeen: And even though last week was the first time Polish territory was struck, the Polish people have in many ways felt like the conflict has spilled into their country since it began in February.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: You go to any store in Poland and if you don’t find anybody from Ukraine working there, I would be surprised. You know, because Ukrainians are working everywhere now. Everywhere. Now in Warsaw, Ukrainian language is almost as popular as Polish. So, we are obviously not part of the war, but you know, the war is very close to us, so you have news all over Polish media all the time.

Newsreel: [Speaking in Polish]

Bartosz Weglarczyk: 24 hours a day, there’s something about Ukraine somewhere.

[POLISH MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: But Bartosz says the war is not just something they’re looking at through their screens.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: There are military installations and transportation hubs of the Ukrainian military very close to the border. People heard Russian missiles flying very close before. They heard them landing in Ukraine, very close to the border of Poland, since the start of the war. You know, it’s scary. First of all, you’re scared because when the war started, everybody in Poland was thinking, you know, what is the Russian plan? Do they attack Ukraine or you know, will they go further? Do they want to attack NATO? Is it world war starting? So, everybody was thinking about it back in February.

Halla Mohieddeen: But the fears have only escalated as the stakes have risen.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: Then, you know, next thing was the nuclear weapons. Do Russians want to use them in Ukraine? What happens if they use them close to the Polish border? Should we take precautions? You know, should we do something? Everybody who has anything to do with news – all the journalists, people in government, were asked by friends, by family members. Should we leave Poland? Should we run away? Should we escape? So, you know, it’s scary.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: After the break, what’s the risk of continued spillover from the war into neighbouring countries?

Halla Mohieddeen: The missile that killed two farmers in Polish territory last week has raised serious questions about how frequently there might be spillover from the Russia-Ukraine war into neighbouring countries. The Take producer Ashish Malhotra explored the fallout with Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor, James Bays.

Ashish Malhotra: How much of a risk do you think this is that we’re gonna continue to see spillover like this continue to happen? You know, should we prepare to just get used to this being a regular occurrence for countries in the neighbourhood? Could this be something that we see every few weeks?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares Bueno, French FM Catherine Colonna, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during talks about the missile strike on Poland at the G20 Leaders' Summit, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares Bueno, French FM Catherine Colonna, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during talks about the missile strike on Poland at the G20 Leaders’ Summit, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022. [Steffen Hebestreit/BPA/Handout via Reuters]
[MUSIC PLAYING]

James Bays: I think the whole period of this war has been a high risk, high stakes moment for the world. There are those that say that we are the closest to a world war, to a nuclear war, potentially, that we’ve been at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. I don’t think this tension goes away. It’s good news on this occasion that there’s been caution, there’s been investigation, and the world has stepped back from confrontation. But we’re still, I think, at a dangerous time. This is a dangerous moment for the world and that danger will not disappear while the war in Ukraine continues. There is the possibility for miscalculation. There’s the possibility for accident, there’s the possibility for escalation. Remember, the nuclear plants in Ukraine too. There is the possibility of something awful happening, and there has been that possibility ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Halla Mohieddeen: Bartosz says people in Poland are also worried about more errant attacks on their soil.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: I mean, is it on people’s minds? Of course it is. And there are a lot of things happening on the border of Poland and Ukraine. Everybody knows and understands that all the military equipment that the Ukraine military get, has to get to Ukraine somehow. And it’s obvious how it gets there. So you know, you ask people who live in southeast Poland, close to the Ukrainian border. They’re scared to death. They really are. You know, these two guys, two farmers, they were just working their field. You know, they didn’t do anything. And so you talk to people over there and they’re really scared. But to tell you the truth, there’s not much we can do about this. There are some discussions about getting better missile defence in Poland, but at the same time, how do you build a missile defence for a cornfield that is five kilometres away from the border? How – you know, there’s no way to defend it. So, yeah, if you ask me, I think things like this will happen in the future, unfortunately. Let’s hope and pray that nobody dies.

Halla Mohieddeen: And yet, he says, preparation has already been under way in Poland and other countries in the region for some time.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: When you travel to southeast Poland, close to the border of Ukraine, you can see a lot of military planes and patriot batteries and S-300 batteries and tanks and military convoys. It’s there in case Russia decides to do something else. So it’s there, it’s in Baltic states. There are the whole battalions and, you know, we have US military personnel and a lot of military personnel from other countries.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Bartosz Weglarczyk: It looks like war actually over there. It’s really scary.

Halla Mohieddeen: On Monday, Poland accepted an offer from Germany for a missile defence system to help secure its airspace. And Bartosz believes the military buildup in countries surrounding Russia and Ukraine will only continue to grow.

Bartosz Weglarczyk: The problem is that we have no idea what Putin was thinking when he decided to go to war. What was his idea? What would happen? What he was trying to achieve? So, at the moment like this, when you don’t understand why some other country is doing something extremely stupid and dangerous, and you don’t understand their purpose, then you have to get ready for the worst scenario. And the worst scenario is, this guy’s crazy. And you know, we don’t know if he’s crazy, but we have to get ready for this. So, the number of military equipment and military personnel in Baltic states, Romania, and Poland is getting bigger. And because of the missile accident, it will get even bigger now.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: But while Russia and Ukraine’s neighbours prepare for the worst, the death and destruction continues to mount for the two warring parties.

[SOUND OF EXPLOSION]

Newsreel: That is dashboard camera video capturing an airstrike in Dnipro in southern Ukraine, shared by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on social media.

Halla Mohieddeen: On the same day that the missile struck Poland, Russia fired over 90 missiles at Ukraine, something James says is their main strategy at this point.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda (C) speaks during press conference on November 17,2022 in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, where a missile strike killed two men, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (C) speaks during press conference on November 17,2022 in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, where a missile strike killed two men, near the border with war-ravaged Ukraine. [Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]
[MUSIC PLAYING]

James Bays: Well, certainly, Russia has decided that that is the best way, or the only way right now, it can deal with what are Ukrainian gains. Considerable Ukrainian gains on the battlefield. The retaking of Kherson, the only regional capital that Russia managed to conquer during this war, the retaking of it by Ukrainian forces. Russia is losing on the battlefield, and Russia’s only response is this deluge of missiles on Ukraine, now deliberately targeting the power plants in Ukraine and cutting the electricity, meaning a pretty grim winter for many Ukrainian citizens.

Newsreel: It’s been a week of missiles and Iranian-supplied drone strikes. The offices of Ukrenergo, a state owned energy company, hit.

Newsreel: Ukraine’s president said today that roughly 30 percent of Ukraine’s power generation has been attacked and knocked offline by new Russian attacks.

James Bays: But it doesn’t change the reality on the battlefield. Ukraine is the one that has been winning. Ukraine is the one that has been regaining territory.

Halla Mohieddeen: But James says the winter and cold temperatures will also change the nature of the war.

James Bays: I think potentially, you are looking at some months of a slower conflict. Not necessarily, though, a more peaceful time. Effectively, you’re going to get people digging in. You’re gonna effectively get sort of a form, a modern form of trench warfare during these winter months, which could still see, I think, some pretty grim casualty figures from both sides. And remember, the statistics – and we don’t have proper figures – but the estimate is that both sides have either killed or wounded about a hundred thousand troops. So, this is a pretty, pretty, pretty grim conflict that is going to drag on. I don’t see any possibility right now of it not. President Zelensky is very, very firm that the war continues until Russia has left Ukraine completely.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Ashish Malhotra with Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are The Take’s engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is our head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Ashish Malhotra with Chloe K. Li. Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, Chloe K. Li, Negin Owliaei, Ashish Malhotra and our host, Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

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