With news breaking on Tuesday afternoon that two Russian missiles may have struck a grain processing plant in Poland near its border with Ukraine, killing two Polish civilians, one question immediately arises: Why would Russia be firing missiles at targets within Ukraine that are close enough to the Polish border that a misfired, or off course, missile might land within the territory of Poland, a NATO ally?
All the facts are not in yet, but military experts interviewed on MSNBC, including General Barry McCaffrey and Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, seem confident that two Russian missiles apparently struck Polish soil. The town where the grain processing facility is located, Przewodow, is four miles from the border with Ukraine and is about 60 miles north of the Ukrainian city of Lviv, which was the target of a major Russian missile attack today.
Both Lviv and Przewodow are within the range of a Russian Iskander SS-26 missile fired from within the territory of Belarus, directly north of both Lviv and Eastern Poland. The Iskander missile, launched from a mobile platform on a truck chassis, has been used repeatedly by Russia against civilian and military targets inside Ukraine. It is thought to be one of the missiles being used to target Ukrainian energy facilities which are within its reach if fired from either Russian or Belarussian soil.
Everyone, including former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, agrees that the Russian missile strikes on Monday night and early Tuesday against civilian targets in Ukraine were made in retaliation for Ukraine’s recent victory in Kherson, when several days ago they ran Russian forces out of the important Ukrainian port on the Black Sea.
But, wait a minute! If you are a great power with a large army, a strong navy, and a powerful air force that has long range bombers and the latest up-to-date fighter jets, aren’t you supposed to respond to an enemy assault on the ground militarily? Shouldn’t Russia be marshaling its forces in the south of Ukraine for a major counterattack with the aim of re-taking the territory it lost around Kherson?
That would be the case if Russia was indeed a great power with a powerful army, navy, and air force, including, it must be noted, nuclear weapons. But nine months after its abortive invasion of Ukraine, Russia has shown itself to be a second or even third-rate military power that has suffered defeat after defeat since its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Russia’s forces are holding onto a sliver of territory taken in the early months of the war along Ukraine’s eastern border, and in its south along the Sea of Azoz and the Black Sea, at least until Ukraine re-took Kherson last week. Instead of assembling a military force in the south capable of re-taking Kherson and launching a counterattack, Vladimir Putin has struck back at Ukrainian civilians and its energy infrastructure.
This is what terrorist states and terrorist actors do when they perceive that they are weaker than their enemies. It’s what al Qaeda did in 2001, when lacking an air force and a well-equipped army, they launched their now infamous attack on America by hijacking airliners and flying them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
Putin isn’t that weak. He didn’t have to resort to hijackings and hostage taking. Instead, he launched missiles against civilians in Ukraine, and it now appears, in Poland as well. It is not known at this time which missiles were launched against Ukraine, although reports from Ukraine say a “mass launch of KH-101 cruise missiles” took place from the Vologograd-Astrakhan Region in Russia earlier today.
It is thought that the Iskander SS-26 missile could also have been used against targets in Ukraine, as it was earlier in the war. It is a short-range semi -ballistic missile, which is to say, after launch, the missile is unpowered, following a trajectory programmed by the ground launch system. The missile is maneuverable with small fins and has a relatively flat trajectory, staying within the earth’s atmosphere. The Iskander is equipped with an optical guidance system which is employed as the missile nears its target. Aerial photographs of a target can be programmed into the missile which the missile is supposed to lock onto in flight and follow as its trajectory descends toward the target. The KH-101 cruise missiles also have an optical guidance system used as the missile nears its target.
But the Russian missile is “guided” only in a very basic sense, and it is not very accurate. Its optical homing system used by both the Iskander and the KH-101 is vulnerable to low-lying clouds, heavy rain, and other bad weather. The Russian missiles which apparently struck the grain facility in Poland may have been set to hit targets in and around Lviv, which took a heavy missile barrage around the time of the strikes in Poland. The Russian missiles may have been caused to go off-target by either weather or anti-missile battery fire. All of this is, at this point, unknown.
What is known by the strikes on Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other population centers earlier today, is that the missiles were sent to hit civilian targets. Several civilian apartment buildings were hit in Kyiv and Lviv. Ukrainian energy infrastructure also came under missile attack.
This is not the military behavior of a great power that has gone to war against a weaker enemy. It is the behavior of a desperate dictator striking out wildly against a country he has made his enemy by fiat and against which he is losing the war he launched. Ukraine didn’t perceive itself to be an enemy of Russia before it was invaded. The perception of Ukraine as an enemy of Russia was entirely Vladimir Putin’s, just as the perception of the U.S. as an enemy was entirely Osama bin Laden’s. Ukraine didn’t ask for the Russian attack on its soil any more than the U.S. asked for the attack by al Qaeda against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Terrorists carried out those attacks, and terrorists carried out the attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine today and every other day since the war was started by Russia on February 24. Poland being struck by Russian missiles was avoidable by Putin any time before he launched his invasion of Ukraine nine months ago.
Military leaders of NATO nations are meeting under Article Four of the NATO treaty. This is the article NATO follows before engaging Article Five, which famously pledges that an attack on any NATO nation is an attack against all of them.
The situation now,, after the Russian missiles apparently landed on Polish soil, is unstable. By attacking Ukraine, Putin thought he could keep his neighbor country out of NATO. Now he has driven Ukraine into an even tighter military alliance with NATO than existed before February 24. Ukraine has become a NATO member country in all but name. It is Putin’s nightmare. Whether it will turn into Europe’s nightmare as well, only time and careful military analysis will tell.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission from Lucian Truscott Newsletter