Allies pressed to plug gaps in Nato’s eastern frontier air defence systems

Only stronger defences will prevent incidents spilling over from the Russian war in Ukraine

Polish soldiers pass the site where a missile killed two people at the village of Przewodow, near the border with Ukraine. Photo: AFP
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Former Soviet bloc countries are pressing their Nato allies to rapidly boost air defence systems in the east after a stray missile hit farmland in south-eastern Poland triggering crisis talks earlier this week.

Two people were killed in the explosion near the village of Przewodow, just over 6km from the Ukrainian border, on Tuesday. Nato allies are now scrambling to strengthen their collective air defence to prevent this from happening again, after decades of neglect since the end of the Cold War.

“Nato’s response will be to prevent these kinds of missiles from reaching Nato territory in the future, even if they arrive by accident,” said Rafael Loss, co-ordinator of pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

The aim is to avoid the triggering of Article 5, meaning that an attack against one Nato country such as Poland sets off a collective response from alliance’s 30 members, including the US.

Ukraine said on Friday that it had sent experts on site as it insists the missile was fired by Russia. While an investigation is continuing, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Nato and US President Joe Biden said the likely explanation was a Ukrainian air defence missile that fell in Poland by accident.

“This incident shows the importance of monitoring, of remaining vigilant, of increased presence, and of the long-term adaptation of Nato's deterrence and defence,” a western diplomat told The National.

Questioned by The National, Polish MEP Witold Jan Waszczykowski shied away from saying the two countries disagreed.

But the difference in point of view “was one of the reasons we decided to invite them to commonly investigate this incident”, he said.

Ukraine and Poland enjoy a close relationship. Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Friday tweeted that the two countries would “continue co-operation in an open and constructive manner, as closest friends do”.

Air defence systems across Europe’s Eastern flank — which is designated as Poland, the Baltic states, and countries further south, such as Slovakia — have dwindled since the end of the Cold War.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has exposed glaring gaps in the region’s air defence systems which, despite numerous announcements by Nato defence ministers, will need years to be remedied.

Europe’s air defence infrastructure is “barely existent” and the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have “basically nothing” beyond short-range shoulder-mounted weapons, said Mr Loss.

Following their accession to Nato in 2004, the alliance deployed air policing missions to the Baltic states. These were expanded after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine but remained largely seen as reassurance measures.

Creating an air shield against potential attacks was not discussed until earlier this year, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The general assessment is that Nato countries collectively need to do a lot in order to make their integrated air missile defence system more robust and more capable to counter the Russian threat,” said Mr Loss.

Slovakia was left without an air defence system after donating its Soviet-produced S300 to Ukraine at the start of the war.

Germany and the Netherlands deployed three Patriot batteries to Slovakia for extra protection, but one was withdrawn last month “based on the evaluation of the security situation in Slovakia and in the region”, according to Slovak news agency Tasr.

We saw an accident just a few days ago, and there might be others further down the road. One of them could escalate to a full-blown crisis
Rafael Loss, co-ordinator of pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank

“Discussions are ongoing about the appropriate mix of capabilities Nato needs to reassure these countries that Russian missiles aren’t going to rain down on them, but also to deter Russia from attacking them,” said Mr Loss.

A Nato official told The National that in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “a number of Allies are acquiring new air and missile defence systems, including the land- and maritime- based systems, such as Patriot and SAMP/T. Allies will also include more air and missile defence aspects in Nato’s exercises and training activities.”

Germany last month led an attempt to launch the European Sky Shield Initiative, which 13 other countries joined.

Poland, which had already bought two US Patriot batteries and asked for six more earlier this year, was a notable exception.

This might reflect the fact that it had previously expressed interest in another German-led project, the Medium Extended Air Defence Systems, to create a European air defence system, which was later abandoned, said Mr Loss.

“European development efforts take very long and are often more expensive than originally planned, whereas past experience indicates military purchases from America is usually delivered in a timely fashion at the promised price,” Mr Loss told The National.

Mr Waszczykowski, a member of the Polish Law and Justice party, compared the launch of the European Sky Shield Initiative to creating a fire department after the start of a blaze.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said early indications were that the explosion in Poland was caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile. Bloomberg

“It’s not good timing to build additional para-structures to Nato. It’s time to concentrate on our efforts and use all the instruments and military hardware we have to defend the Eastern flank,” he told The National.

In addition to the two mobile Patriot batteries currently present on Polish soil, the US deployed thousands of troops close to the Ukrainian border this year, protected by their own anti-missile system.

“Of course, this is not enough, but we are not engaged directly in a war,” said Mr Waszczykowski.

“In case of a serious crisis, we hope that some Nato batteries and anti-missile systems would be moved from central Europe to Nato’s Eastern flank, to Poland and other countries.”

Poland’s air defence systems would normally be positioned around critical hubs in eastern Poland, which explains why they were unable to intercept the incoming missile on Tuesday.

Complete protection is impossible, and initiatives such as the European Sky Shield Initiative are aimed at “making the sky over eastern Europe a bit more impenetrable to Russian missiles than they are now”, said Mr Loss.

Yet, a month after its launch, details regarding the European Sky Shield Initiative are scarce.

It remains unclear what the purchases will consist of and which countries will pay for them. The National has sent questions to the German authorities regarding the European Sky Shield Initiative’s progression.

Discussions behind closed doors indicate that the focus is on understanding European needs before purchases can be made, with deliveries not expected before two or three years, according to Mr Loss.

Officials have indicated that Germany is considering purchasing Israel’s Arrow 3 system, which is co-developed with the US.

The initiative mirrors a similar move at EU level, where a task force is working on joint procurement needs and will reach out to European industry early next year.

The bloc’s 27 countries plan to spend an additional €70bn ($72.5) in the next three years to make up for cuts in military spending decided after the 2008 financial crisis.

So far, Russia and Nato allies have been careful to avoid escalation, but the Kremlin’s calculations might change.

“If there is a hot and very large war in your neighbourhood, all kinds of escalation scenarios are in the realm of possibility,” said Mr Loss.

“We saw an accident just a few days ago, and there might be others further down the road. One of them could escalate to a full-blown crisis.”

Updated: November 19, 2022, 8:47 AM