For several hours Tuesday evening, tensions soared around the world as word arrived that two people in Poland had been killed by a missile strike and that the missile could have come from Russia.
Poland’s national-security committee met in emergency session. NATO leaders conferred urgently in Europe, North America and at G20 meetings that were under way in Bali, Indonesia.
Polish officials announced that their country might invoke Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which would have led to consultations among members about a possible threat to the alliance. Baltic states declared their firm solidarity with their Polish allies.
Later in the evening, Eastern Time, we learned that the missile was probably not Russian. Wednesday, the Polish government confirmed that a Ukrainian air-defence missile had gone astray. No need for more emergency meetings. No need for Article 4. Carry on.
Except we can’t just carry on. Tuesday’s brief crisis reminds us that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put all our lives at risk.
“We are clearly in the worst crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Elliot Tepper, a professor of international relations at Carleton University.
But there are two differences: The 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, lasted days. This crisis has lasted months, with many more months to come.
And as Prof. Tepper observed, the Kennedy administration found a way to let Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev retreat while saving face. (The Soviets agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba, as the United States demanded; the Americans in turn removed missiles from Turkey.)
But Russian President Vladimir Putin “is far more reckless,” said Prof. Tepper. “We see no off-ramp for him. Either he wins or he loses.”
This leaves us all one miscalculation away from Armageddon. That is the real lesson from Tuesday’s brief emergency.
When word of the missile strike first arrived, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately assumed the worst.
“To fire missiles at NATO territory!” he stated on the social-media site Telegram. “This is a Russian missile attack on collective security! This is a very significant escalation. We must act.”
Luckily, we didn’t.
Mr. Zelensky has every reason to hope that NATO will be drawn into the Russo-Ukrainian war. NATO has every reason not to be drawn in.
No one in NATO is blaming Ukraine for the accidental strike, which was the result of Ukrainian efforts to defend against a Russian missile attack. Because it launched that attack, Russia, not Ukraine, is responsible for the deaths in Poland.
But if NATO becomes directly involved in this war, the risk of a nuclear exchange rises exponentially, which is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders reacted with caution, when word arrived of the explosion in Poland.
Canada is deeply involved in this crisis. Thousands of displaced Ukrainians have come to this country; Canadians Forces have helped train Ukrainian troops. Earlier this week, Mr. Trudeau promised a further $500-million in aid to Ukraine. And of course, this country is a founding member of NATO.
To its credit, the Trudeau government delivered a measured response Tuesday night: offering Poland full support as it conducted its investigation, while avoiding any rush to judgment. Mr. Biden took a similar line, before delivering the news that the missile probably did not come from Russia.
Prof. Tepper believes that the most likely outcome of Tuesday’s brief emergency is that the United States and other Western countries will finally offer Ukraine the kind of advanced air defences it has been asking for since the crisis began. That may or may not increase the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.
But this much we know for sure: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was not only an evil act, it was an act of unparalleled irresponsibility. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed as a result.
And as the explosions in Poland remind us, at any moment things could get much, much worse.