PRZEWODOW, Poland (AP) — NATO member Poland and the head of the military alliance said Wednesday that a missile strike on Polish farmland that killed two people appeared to be unintentional and was likely fired from air defenses in neighboring Ukraine. At the time, Russia bombed Ukraine in an attack that devastated its energy grid.
“The defense of Ukraine was firing its missiles in different directions and it is very likely that one of those missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that this was a deliberate attack on Poland.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a meeting of militaries from 30 countries alliance in Brussels, echoed Poland’s preliminary findings. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, disputed them and demanded a further investigation.
Assessments of Tuesday’s deadly missile landing appeared to reduce the likelihood that the strike would trigger another major escalation in Russia’s nearly nine-month-old invasion of Ukraine. If Russia had targeted Poland, it could have risked drawing NATO into the conflict.
Still, Stoltenberg and others blame the war generally, but not specifically, on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears the ultimate responsibility,” Stoltenberg said.
Zelensky told reporters he had “no doubts” about the report he had received from his top commanders “that this was not our missile or our missile strike.” Ukrainian officials should have access to the site and participate in the investigation, he added.
“Let’s say it openly, if, God forbid, some remnant (of Ukraine’s air defenses) killed a person, these people, then we should 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.”
Ahead of the Polish and NATO assessments, US President Joe Biden 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 Russian Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow said no Russian strike on Tuesday came closer than 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Ukrainian-Polish border. The Kremlin condemned the initial response by Poland and other countries and, in rare praise for an American leader, hailed Biden’s “restrained, much more professional response.”
“We witnessed yet another hysterical, frantic, Russophobic 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 Soviet-era S-300. Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, has Soviet and Russian weapons and has also captured many more Russian weapons as it repels the Kremlin’s invasion forces.
The Russian attack on power generation and transmission facilities on Tuesday involved 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 countrywide bombardment of cruise missiles and exploding drones clouded the initial picture of what happened in Poland.
“It was a huge blast, the sound was terrifying,” said Eva Baira, principal of the primary school in the eastern village of Przhevodov, where the rocket hit. She said she knew both men who were killed – one the husband of a school employee and the other the father of a former student.
Another resident, Kinga Kanchir, 24, said the men worked at a grain drying facility.
“It’s very hard to take,” she said. “Nothing was happening and suddenly there was 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 at Ukrainian infrastructure intensively and on a large scale,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
Parts of Ukraine were left without electricity after the airstrike. Zelensky said about 10 million people had lost power, but tweeted overnight that 8 million had subsequently been turned back on. Previous strikes had already destroyed around 40% of the country’s energy infrastructure.
Ukraine said the bombing was the largest ever on its energy grid.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine’s shooting down of so many Russian missiles on Tuesday “illustrates the improvement in Ukraine’s air defenses over the past month,” which has been bolstered by Western-supplied systems. Sweden said on Wednesday that an air defense system with munitions would be part of the latest and largest package of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, worth $360 million.
The US is Ukraine’s biggest backer, providing $18.6 billion in weapons and equipment. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the flow of weapons and aid would continue “throughout the winter so that Ukraine can continue to consolidate gains and take the initiative on the battlefield.”
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he tried to speak with his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, but those efforts were unsuccessful. Milley did not elaborate on the effort, but the lack of conversation at a time when there were questions about whether Russia had struck a NATO ally raised concerns about high-level communications between the U.S. and Russia during 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 another escalation of the war.
As the fighting continues, Rosemary Di Carlo warned the UN Security Council, “the risks of potentially catastrophic proliferation remain all too real.”
The Russian attacks followed days of euphoria in Ukraine sparked by one of its biggest military successes, last week’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson.
With battlefield losses mounting, Russia has increasingly resorted to attacking Ukraine’s energy grid as winter approaches.
Russian attacks over the past 24 hours have killed at least six civilians and wounded 17 others, senior official Kyrillo Tymoshenko said on Wednesday.
Lviv Governor Maxim Kozytsky said two of the three Russian missiles hit critical energy infrastructure in the western province. Power has been restored in about 95 percent of the province, he said, but only 30 percent of consumers can use electricity at the same time.
The power shortage caused major train delays that continued into Wednesday, but there were no cancellations as the diesel locomotives were put into service, railway officials said.
Kyiv resident Margina Daria said Tuesday’s strikes cut off cell phones in her area.
“We had already adapted to life without light because we planned outages every day, but without communication it was quite unsettling,” she said. “There was no way we could even tell our families that we were okay.”
AP journalists Vanessa Guerra and Monika Scisłowska in Warsaw; Lorne Cook in Brussels; John Lester in Kyiv, Ukraine; Juras 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 of Wilmington, North Carolina, contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine