By Sumantra MAITRA
This is getting ridiculous,” an unnamed NATO diplomat was reported to say, “the Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”
The outburst came after the Ukrainian government denied consensus NATO and American opinion that it had goofed up and misfired a missile into the territory of one of its biggest backers, killing two. It would have been noble to admit the mistake outright and show some remorse, and the incident would have been unlikely to be held against Ukraine. After all, it is the one facing an invasion, and friendly fire incidents happen in a saturated theatre even with the best militaries, even with top-tier deconfliction processes in place.
The most responsible behavior in the incident came from Poland, the country struck by the missile. Warsaw stated that an investigation was underway, and then called NATO to discuss the apparent “attack.” Once it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the strike wasn’t from Russia, Poland withdrew its Article 4 request.
But for about fourteen hours, the threat of nuclear war loomed large over the Euro-Atlantic. The claim that a Russian missile had flown into Poland hinged on the words of a lone anonymous “senior intelligence official,” amplified first by the Associated Press and then by lobbyists masquerading as national security experts. Its spread was recklessly fuelled by the Baltic states and Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president said it was time for a serious NATO countermeasure. The Ukrainian foreign minister channelled his inner girl-boss and said it was a “conspiracy theory” to say that Poland was hit by Ukrainian air defences. Ukrainian M.P. Lesia Vasylenko tweeted, “2 #russia missiles fly over #Ukraine #Polish border. Hits of polish territory and so far 2 possible civilian casualties. This calls for @NATO article 5 reaction. Right?” Then, as the narrative collapsed in real time, tweeted again, “This is #russia’s fault! If #putin hadn’t gone crazy with a missile shower over #Ukraine yesterday, there would be no hits. In #Kyiv, #Kharkiv or #Przewodow”.
The BBC reported, “Baltic states on the front line with Russia were quick to call on the collective defence of Nato. The President of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda declared on Twitter: “Every inch of NATO territory must be defended!” Others said the incident made the case for even greater military support for Ukraine. Latvia’s defence minister, Artis Pabriks, suggested NATO could provide more air defenses for Poland and “part of the territory of Ukraine.” Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, said the West should give Ukraine more military, humanitarian, and financial support.
Put simply, a whole bunch of people called for direct war between the two largest nuclear powers, all for their petty localized interests.
Now that there is a consensus that the incident was a stray Ukrainian missile, it seems highly improbable that the Ukrainian government and some of their lobbyists in D.C. didn’t know that. It is almost impossible to conceive that a leader of a country at war had not received the frontline information from his battlefield command about the trajectory of the misfired border air-defense missile around the same time that he and his government were making statements about the urgency of NATO imposing collective defense.
In the parlance of D.C., it appears a clear case of deliberate “disinformation.” It is, quite frankly, unlikely that the Ukrainian government and military did not know that they were calling for what would have effectively amounted to a world war. Every sane military strategist knows the meaning of Article 5. The NATO states know that. The Baltic states should know that. Frustrated American intelligence and administration officials, trapped by their earlier Churchillian rhetoric, know that, at least by now. And yet.
A still contested puzzle in international relations is whether great powers influence their satellites or whether ideological small states drag (or “chain-gang”) their witless and myopic benefactors. As Schumpeter wrote, “there was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Roman allies…”
From a Machiavellian standpoint, one can understand why Ukrainian leadership would lie to the world to get everyone else to fight their war, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. Deception is often more effective than force. Fidel Castro also tried to drag the Soviets into his war, but the Soviets were prudential enough to leash their dogs.
One, this is ideological. Historically, a simple hypothesis is often correct. But two—and here it gets more complicated—the bigger the alliance, the more constrained the choices of the hegemon. Expanding NATO consolidates the liberal-internationalist orthodoxy and multiplies an imperial, self-sustaining, and expanding bureaucracy, making it more difficult for a hegemon like the U.S. to act in its own interests as opposed to the interests of the group. No great power or empire in history has been this trapped by its own ideological overreach. Fenrir, in this case, is not only chained, but has proceeded to neuter himself.
NATO did not and would not do anything without the permission of Washington, D.C., but this episode presents an opportunity to contemplate and reconsider some peripheral alliance commitments, and the risk of resultant escalatory spirals. Next time the world might not be so lucky.