How Biden’s White House fell out after missile explosion in Poland

How Biden’s White House fell out after missile explosion in Poland
How Biden’s White House fell out after missile explosion in Poland

WASHINGTON, Nov 18 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden has insisted the United States will support Ukraine in its nine-month fight to repel a Russian invasion. But he insisted, “we will not fight World War III in Ukraine.”

So when a missile hit a village in Poland near the Ukrainian border on November 15 and there were early allegations that it was launched by Russia, he and his best team of advisers were shaken in crisis mode. The United States and other NATO countries would be forced to militarily defend NATO member Poland if attacked by Russia – a situation that could escalate into a world war that most people want to avoid.

Biden, in the final days of a week-long trip to Asia, was woken by aides in the middle of the night in Bali, Indonesia, to let him know that a missile had killed two people in Poland, said said a US official.

Ukrainian officials publicly blamed Russia, as did a since-corrected Associated Press report quoting an unnamed senior US intelligence official.

The reports sent stock markets plunging and officials scrambling. Eastern European countries reacted angrily and the temperature rose.

Preliminary information from US sources indicated that Ukraine may have fired the missile in an effort to fend off a storm of incoming Russian missiles and that it accidentally landed in Poland.

As they sought confirmation, the White House and other US agencies said little publicly. “We cannot confirm information or any details at this time. We will determine what happened and what the appropriate next steps would be,” White House spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.

Behind the scenes, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was reaching out to some foreign diplomats, asking them to take a cautious approach and be “measured” while the United States considered how it would respond, Western diplomats told Reuters.

Flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and wearing a t-shirt and khakis, Biden made an early morning call to Polish President Andrzej Duda, offering his condolences and support for an investigation, the White House said.

FAILURE OF CERTAIN COMMUNICATIONS FROM MOSCOW

As tensions simmered and European allies worried, the US military attempted to reach out to Moscow.

The Pentagon stressed the importance of military-to-military communication with Moscow during the nine-month war in Ukraine.

For example, the White House held talks with Russia over its threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and senior defense officials spoke with their Russian counterparts in October after Moscow accused Ukraine to plan a “dirty bomb” attack.

But at the Pentagon on Tuesday, efforts to contact the Russian military failed.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his staff tried to arrange a call with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

“Some attempts have been made. No success,” Milley told reporters.

“My staff failed to put me in contact with General Gerasimov,” he said.

Sullivan, who has been in contact with Russian officials about the risks of invading Ukraine, has not made contact about this incident, a White House official said.

CIA Director Bill Burns, who met his Russian counterparts from the Russian intelligence agency SVR in Ankara on Monday, was in Kyiv on Tuesday, the day the missiles hit Poland, and traveled to Warsaw on the following day.

A US official said that in Ukraine, Burns “discussed the US warning he issued to the head of the Russian SVR not to use nuclear weapons and reinforced US commitment to provide support to the Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression”.

The US official said Burns had met with officials in Poland and “discussed the current situation”, but would not comment when asked if Burns had reconnected with SVR after the incident in Poland.

A Kremlin spokesman said he did not know if Russian channels with the United States were activated to prevent any further escalation, but noted that the American reaction was “restrained”.

INVESTIGATION

Biden and his aides called an emergency meeting of G7 leaders at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning in Bali to discuss the incident, where he told them what the United States had learned — that the explosion had been caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile.

He was a little more vague when answering questions from reporters after the meeting, saying it was “unlikely” the missile was fired from Russia based on its trajectory.

Later, the NATO secretary general said the blast was likely caused by a stray Ukrainian air defense missile, but that Russia was ultimately responsible because it had started the war.

Poland conducted its own investigation into what happened. The U.S. military sent U.S. explosives experts to the site to help with the investigation, at Poland’s request, a U.S. official said.

The official said the investigation should fairly quickly conclude that Ukraine fired the missile. “Now it’s a matter of doing some forensic work to determine what type of missile it was,” the official said.

Ukraine insisted there was a “Russian trace” to the blast and sent its own experts to the site to investigate.

The incident shows how dangerous Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is for Europe and the rest of the world, observers said.

“Poland and the Baltics have been warning for some time that there is a real risk of something happening that draws the West into a wider conflict,” an EU diplomat said. “What happened on Tuesday clearly shows that this war is not managed, it is not controlled.”

Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Michael Martina, Nandita Bose and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Heather Timmons and Rosalba O’Brien

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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