As President Joe Biden slept on the other side of the world, aides woke him up in the middle of the night with urgent news: Poland was hit by a missile and killed two people.
5:30 am local time in Bali, where the President was Attending the G20 SummitBiden, still in a T-shirt and khakis, was on the phone with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda seeking clarity on where the missile actually came from — a critical fact ally given the potentially dire consequences of a Russian missile attack on NATO.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who was traveling with Biden, was also startled by a man in his body who knocked on the door about 4 a.m. local time with news of the explosion, a U.S. official said — news that most U.S. officials gleaned only from public reports and conversations with Polish officials. .
Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with their Polish counterparts and joined Biden for the call with Duda.
Polish officials first began hearing about a possible explosion in the eastern border town of Przewodow around 10 a.m. Bali time on Tuesday, and information began to trickle out publicly and inform friends around 1 p.m. ET or 2 p.m. ET. in Bali.
As the morning wore on and more intelligence came in, it became clear to American officials examining satellite-based intelligence and speaking with their Polish counterparts that the missile appeared to have landed in a Polish farm in the country’s far east. Launched by Ukraine As part of its air defense system.
After a tense few hours, Biden was the first to defuse some of the tension, telling reporters that initial information indicated the missile was not launched by Russia.
The relief among US officials was palpable. Contrary to their worst fears, preliminary intelligence indicated that Russia had not deliberately attacked Poland, an official said. But for Biden and his advisers, the episode still represented the scenario they had feared: an unprovoked attack on NATO territory, the ramifications and consequences of which remain unclear.
With the situation so fluid, Biden’s advisers urged calm and restraint with Ukrainian authorities.
About an hour after news of the incident broke, Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a nightly speech that “Russian missiles hit Poland,” calling it a “very significant escalation” that required a response.
Sullivan quickly called Zelensky’s office after those comments and urged officials to think more carefully about how they were talking about the incident, sources familiar with the call said. Biden and Zelensky did not speak Tuesday night despite the Ukrainian leader’s request to arrange a call, a source familiar with the matter said.
The U.S. and Poland quickly agreed to work together on the investigation into the strike, and CIA Director Bill Burns met with Duda in Warsaw on Wednesday evening, a U.S. official said. Hours earlier, Burns was assassinated at the US Embassy in Kiev as Russian missiles struck the city.
But the incident has also created some cracks in the Western alliance with Ukraine.
Biden and Duda have now said publicly that the missile originated from Ukraine’s air defense system — a claim strongly denied by Zelensky, much to the chagrin of Polish officials, the sources said.
And although Biden spoke with Duda and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after the strike and held emergency talks with world leaders at the G20, the president had not spoken directly with Zelensky as of Wednesday afternoon, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. .
Instead, Sullivan spoke with Zelensky’s chief of staff in the hours after the explosion, the sources said, and Blinken spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
Ukraine has also requested to join an investigative team made up of US and Polish officials inspecting the site of the missile attack, Zelenskiy said on Wednesday. “We have to participate in the investigation,” he told reporters. But that demand has not been accepted yet.
Back in Washington on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley when an aide interrupted with news of the explosion, and the three officials summoned their Polish. Soon after counterpart.
A little later, around 2 p.m., a press conference with Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder was minutes away. But some officials at the Pentagon had just heard from the media about the missile that hit Poland, and the Pentagon had nothing to confirm a Russian missile launch that hit NATO territory.
Pentagon officials wanted to know if they wanted to know, because they had virtually no information to provide about what became the most important item of the day.
In the end, an official told CNN, the press shop was postponed because the last-minute cancellation of the press conference was exactly the kind of terror officials were keen to avoid.
As Ryder stood at the podium, he repeatedly fielded questions about the missile for which he still had no answers.
Meanwhile, Milley was in his office in the ring outside the Pentagon, instructing his staff to make phone calls, officials said. First there was his Polish counterpart, quickly followed by his Ukrainian counterpart. While speaking with other defense chiefs, as well as European Command commander Gen. Chris Cavoli, who was on the phone, Millie hung up on one call and made another.
Milli’s staff worked to get his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, on track. The two had spoken only once in late October since the Russian invasion began. But this time there was no call and neither spoke on Tuesday night.
That evening, Millie and Austin brief Biden on what they have learned about the incident.
As of Wednesday, several senior U.S. officials were saying publicly that intelligence pointed to an explosion from a Ukrainian air defense missile that accidentally landed in Poland. The US also shared classified information with allies ahead of the North Atlantic Council meeting at NATO headquarters on Wednesday morning, an official said.
“We have seen nothing to contradict President Duda’s initial assessment that the explosion was the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile that unfortunately landed in Poland,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
An initial examination of the blast site showed the debris to be from a Soviet-era S-300 missile, sources familiar with the intelligence said. A Ukrainian air defense missile attempted to intercept a Russian missile but missed and landed in Poland, several US and NATO officials said.
“From the information we have and our allies have, it was an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union, an old rocket, and there is no evidence that it was launched from the Russian side,” Duda said at a press conference on Wednesday. . It is highly likely that it was fired by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses.”
The U.S. also determined that the Russian missile would likely continue on its path and either hit its intended target or land very close to it, an official said.
Zelensky insisted Wednesday afternoon that the missile was not fired by Ukrainian forces. “I have no doubt that it was not our missile,” he told reporters in Kyiv, citing reports from the command of the Ukrainian armed forces and air force.
Zelenskiy also expressed disappointment that Ukrainian officials were not allowed to join the joint Polish-US inspection of the site, saying he “would like to see the number on the missile, because all missiles have numbers on them.”
“Do we have a right to be on the investigation team?” Zelensky said. “Of course.”
On Thursday, Zelenskiy confirmed that Ukrainian investigators would be allowed access to the site of the strike, and that Ukraine acknowledged firing an air defense missile. “I don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure. The world does not understand. But I am sure that it was a Russian missile, I am sure that we fired from the air defense systems,” said Zelensky.
He also said that only after the investigation, a conclusion can be drawn as to which missile fell on the territory of Poland.
This story has been updated with comments Zelensky made Thursday