PRZEWODOW, Poland (AP) — NATO member Poland and the head of the military alliance both said Wednesday that a missile attack in Polish farmland that killed two people appeared to have been unintentional and likely launched by air defenses in neighboring Ukraine. At the time, Russia bombed Ukraine in an attack that destroyed the power grid.
“The defense of Ukraine launched their missiles in different directions, and it is very likely that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that it was a deliberate attack on Poland.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at a meeting of the military of 30 nations alliance in Brussels, reiterated the preliminary Polish findings. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy disputed them and asked for further investigation.
Assessments of Tuesday’s deadly missile landing appeared to reduce the likelihood that the attack sparked another major escalation in Russia’s nearly 9-month-old invasion of Ukraine. If Russia had targeted Poland, it could have risked drawing NATO into the conflict.
Yet Stoltenberg and others placed general but not specific blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war.
“This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears the ultimate responsibility,” Stoltenberg said.
Zelenskyy told reporters he had “no doubts” about a report he received from his top commanders “that it was not our missile or our missile attack.” Ukrainian officials should have access to the site and participate in the investigation, he added.
“Let’s openly say that if, God forbid, a remnant (of the Ukrainian air defense) killed a person, these people, then we have to apologize,” he said. “But first there has to be a probe, access — we want to get the data you have.”
On Tuesday, he called the strike “a very significant escalation.”
Prior to the assessments by Poland and NATO, US President Joe Biden had said it was “unlikely” that Russia had fired the missile, but added: “I’m going to make sure we find out exactly what happened. “
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow said Tuesday there was no Russian attack less than 35 kilometers (22 mi) from the Ukraine-Poland border. The Kremlin denounced the initial response from Poland and other countries and, in rare praise for an American leader, praised Biden’s “restrained, much more professional response.”
“We have witnessed yet another hysterical, frenzied, Russian-phobic reaction that was not based on real data,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Later on Wednesday, the Russian foreign ministry summoned the Polish ambassador to Moscow; the discussion reportedly lasted about 20 minutes.
The Polish president said the missile was likely a Russian-made S-300 from the Soviet era. Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, carries Soviet and Russian-made weapons and has also seized many more Russian weapons as it beats back the Kremlin’s invading forces.
Russia’s attack on electricity generation and transmission facilities on Tuesday also included Ukraine’s western region, bordering Poland. The Ukrainian military said 77 of the more than 90 missiles fired were shot down by air defenses, along with 11 drones.
The nationwide bombardment with cruise missiles and exploding drones clouded the initial picture of what was happening in Poland.
“It was a huge explosion, the sound was terrifying.” said Ewa Byra, the principal of the primary school in the eastern village of Przewodow, where the rocket hit. She said she knew both of the murdered men — one was the husband of a school employee, the other the father of a former student.
Another resident, 24-year-old Kinga Kancir, said the men worked in a grain drying plant.
“It’s very hard to accept,” she says. “There was nothing wrong and suddenly there is a world sensation.”
In Europe, NATO members called for a thorough investigation and criticized Moscow.
“This would not have happened without the Russian war against Ukraine, without the missiles that are now being fired intensively and extensively against Ukrainian infrastructure,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Large parts of Ukraine were without power after the airstrike. Zelenskyy said about 10 million people lost electricity, but tweeted overnight that 8 million had been reconnected after that. Previous strikes had already destroyed an estimated 40% of the country’s energy infrastructure.
Ukraine said the bombing was the largest on its power grid to date.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said Ukraine’s downing of so many Russian missiles on Tuesday “illustrates the improvement in Ukrainian air defenses over the past month,” which is being bolstered with systems supplied by the West. Sweden said on Wednesday that a munitions-powered air defense system will be part of its latest and largest package of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, worth $360 million.
The US has been Ukraine’s biggest supporter, with $18.6 billion in arms and equipment. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the flow of arms and aid “will continue through the winter so that Ukraine can continue to consolidate its gains and seize the initiative on the battlefield.”
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he tried to talk to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, but those attempts were unsuccessful. Milley did not comment on the efforts, but the lack of conversation, at a time when there were questions about whether Russia had struck a NATO ally, raises concerns about high-level communication between the US and Russia in a crisis.
At the United Nations, the organization’s political chief said the missile strike in Poland was “a frightening reminder” of the need to prevent further escalation of the war.
As the fighting continues, Rosemary DiCarlo warned the UN Security Council, “the risks of a potentially catastrophic spillover remain all too real.”
The Russian attacks followed days of euphoria in Ukraine fueled by one of its greatest military successes: last week’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson.
With battlefield losses mounting, Russia has increasingly resorted to attacks on Ukraine’s power grid as winter approaches.
Russian strikes in the past 24 hours have killed at least six civilians and wounded another 17, a senior official, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said on Wednesday.
Lviv governor Maksym Kozytskyy said two of three Russian missiles hit critical energy infrastructure in the western province. Power has been restored to about 95% of the county, he said, but only 30% of consumers can use electricity at a time.
Power shortages caused extensive train delays that stretched into Wednesday, but there were no cancellations as diesel locomotives were brought into service, railroad officials said.
Kiev-based Margina Daria said Tuesday’s strikes knocked out cell phone service in her area.
“We’ve already adapted to life without light, because we have scheduled outages every day, but without communication it was quite disturbing,” she said. “There was no way we could even tell our families that we were okay.”
AP journalists Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw; Lorne Cook in Brussels; John Leicester in Kyiv, Ukraine; Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia; Zeke Miller in Nusa Dua, Indonesia; Michael Balsamo and Lolita Baldor in Washington; Elise Morton in London; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; and James LaPorta in Wilmington, North Carolina, contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: