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Wider Europe Briefing: NATO Fallout After A Rocket Hits Poland; A Tough Winter For EU-Ukraine Relations


A seemingly relieved NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the press that there was no indication of a deliberate attack, nor was Russia preparing offensive military action against NATO.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's new newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, please click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: the fallout at NATO after a rocket hit Poland last week, and how Ukraine stands with the EU ahead of a long winter.

Brief #1: NATO Fallout After A Rocket Hits Poland

What You Need To Know: Late on November 15, there was a nervous buzz around Brussels as news was coming in that a rocket had killed two Polish citizens in a village not far from the Ukrainian border. At the time, many people supposed the presumed "attack" was part of an ongoing Russian barrage of Ukraine, missiles that had been taking out the country's electricity grid.

Was this an "Article 5 moment?" -- perhaps the most famous provision of the NATO treaty in which an attack on one of the 30 alliance members is considered an attack on all. It has only been invoked once in the military alliance's history: after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

As the dust settled, there was more clarity, and then calm. It seemed more likely that it was a stray rocket not intended to hit Poland. Still, everyone expected Warsaw to trigger Article 4 the next day -- a less dramatic option than Article 5, in which alliance members that feel threatened ask for formal consultations, normally in order to strengthen military defenses. This article was last triggered by eight Eastern NATO countries directly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Through the morning of November 16, it became more and more probable that it was a Soviet-era S-300 antiaircraft rocket that had been accidentally fired by Ukrainian forces defending against Russian attacks. Article 4 was not invoked, but a regular -- and much anticipated -- North Atlantic Council (NAC) was held in Brussels among NATO ambassadors. After the meeting, in which Poland briefed the council, a seemingly relieved NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the press that there was no indication of a deliberate attack, nor was Russia preparing offensive military action against NATO. He also added that "this is not Ukraine's fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility," a sentiment later echoed by the EU as well.

Deep Background: After a sleepless night, a Western official I spoke to on the condition of anonymity referred to the whole incident as "a storm in a teacup, but a big teacup."

Poland was widely praised for having acted in a restrained and measured way throughout, defying some stereotypes of gung-ho hawkishness. Everyone now awaits the investigation that the United States is assisting Warsaw with.

There are certainly some uncomfortable questions, most notably why the rocket wasn't detected by NATO air defenses. Stoltenberg insisted that "we have air-defense systems in place that are active 24/7." He also hinted that NATO is set up to counter missiles that have special characteristics and that the one that hit Poland didn't share those characteristics.

The Polish ambassador to NATO, Tomasz Szatkowski, also noted afterward that the accidental nature of the incident made it harder for the systems to spot the rockets, emphasizing that Warsaw would have to do some fine-tuning.

Drilling Down:

  • During the meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Poland did ask NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, General Christopher G. Cavoli, not only to increase vigilance but also to assess the need for more air-defense capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, ascertain whether there are weaknesses on NATO's Eastern front. There was, however, no formal tasking and no deadlines as to when this assessment can be expected. Earlier this year, a high-ranking NATO official told me that if Russia were to attack a NATO member, it would most likely be Poland, due to the country acting as a hub for Western arms deliveries into Ukraine. Poland received two U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries in the early stages of the war that, combined with other air defenses, have so far allayed any fears about vulnerabilities.
  • Another fear that some NATO allies expressed was how Russian propaganda can use this latest incident and to what effect. One strand of thought is that the Kremlin can attempt to convince Western audiences that now is the time for their governments to cease arms deliveries to Kyiv, as the Ukrainian military is careless, if not downright incompetent. Moscow will also claim that the reason Russia was blamed first, instead of Ukraine, was due to anti-Russian hysteria in the West. Comments from Ukrainian officials -- including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy -- that questioned whether the rocket was fired by Ukrainian forces were met with disbelief by some European officials. They were worried that Ukraine -- and NATO -- might end up with egg on their faces, but also that Zelenskiy's statements could be easily exploited by Russia.

Brief #2: A Tough Winter For EU-Ukraine Relations

What You Need To Know: This week might have seen an EU-Ukraine summit taking place in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The meeting, originally slated for November 25, would have brought together the European Commission and Council presidents with the Kyiv leadership. The precarious situation in Ukraine, however, has forced a postponement.

The working assumption is that the meeting will now take place in December or even January and that it might have to be moved to Brussels, in the end, for security reasons. Another reason for the postponement is that few concrete "deliverables" were expected, and the draft summit declaration, which I saw a working version of, was pretty meager.

An EU official told me on background that while no "real Ukraine fatigue" has set in in Brussels, the "impending winter months will be about hunkering down before we can start delivering on promises again come spring." Despite that, there will be four main strands of the EU's relationship with Ukraine: financial aid, military support, sanctions, and Kyiv's EU membership bid.

Deep Background: While the financial aid strand looks complicated, it is expected to be solved soon. The European Commission has proposed a package of macro-financial support for Ukraine next year worth 18 billion euros ($18.6 billion), with 1.5 billion euros to be disbursed each month starting in January.

For that package to be approved, unanimity among the 27 member states is needed. And Hungary has indicated that it will veto the aid package, as Budapest is angling to secure 7.5 billion euros of EU funds for itself that the European Commission suspended earlier this year due to rule-of-law concerns. Most officials expect that impasse to be solved when the bloc's finance ministers convene in Brussels on December 6. Most likely, they will reluctantly agree to release the Hungarian funds after the European Commission, at the end of November, pronounces itself sufficiently satisfied with the right-wing Fidesz government's recent judicial reforms. And then Hungary will quietly remove its Ukrainian veto.

With military aid, however, it might be trickier. Last week, Brussels officially launched its military assistance mission for Ukraine, with the first Ukrainian soldiers arriving in various member states for training. Altogether, the bloc has provided at least 8 billion euros of military aid to Ukraine (roughly 45 percent of what the United States has provided so far), out of which 3.1 billion euros comes directly from the EU's own financial body, the European Peace Facility (EPF).

One issue is that there is only a little more than 2 billion euros left in the EPF, and those funds are supposed to last until 2027. So, Brussels must either resort to "budgetary creativity" to somehow find more cash, or coax member states to step up their bilateral aid contributions in the coming months.

Drilling Down:

  • The EU is likely to impose its ninth round of sanctions on Russia in the coming weeks, but just like its last round of restrictive measures imposed on Moscow in early October, it will be a weak package. EU officials I have spoken to expect the European Commission to present the proposed sanctions at the end of November, with a view to them being adopted in early December. The package will likely include more sanction listings on Russian officials; a ban on more dual-use goods, which can be used for both civilian and military purposes; and updating sanctions on Belarus so they are in line with the Russian ones. Ideally, there will also be a Russian oil-price cap for third countries that will complement the EU's import ban on most Russian oil that enters into force on December 5. A third country oil-price cap will partly depend on continued discussions at the G7 and G20. But don't expect any more extensive sanction proposals after a stormy EU foreign affairs council meeting on November 14 in which Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto reportedly clashed with some of his counterparts and questioned the effectiveness of the restrictive measures.
  • On the enlargement bid, the official line is that Ukraine (along with fellow EU candidate Moldova and potential candidate Georgia) will have to wait for the European Commission to present its EU enlargement package in October 2023. But there is already a push from some EU member states for Brussels to publish some sort of "interim assessment" as soon as March to encourage Ukraine to make speedy reforms. In early December, the European Commission will issue a report assessing how prepared the Eastern trio is to implement the full body of EU legislation. The report is still being worked on, but I have heard from Brussels sources that one conclusion that the commission might draw is that Georgia has the best "absorption capacity" of the trio. That's EU speak for having a bureaucracy that works effectively in adopting EU legislation in many different policy fields -- for example, the judiciary, agriculture, or economics.

Looking Ahead

On November 23, the European Parliament will vote on a resolution declaring Russia "a state sponsor of terrorism." Like all foreign policy resolutions the parliament passes, it is nonbinding for EU member states, and the designation isn't formal EU policy. But it is worth remembering that the European Parliament tends to be a bit of a bellwether on these issues, with the content of its resolutions adopted by member states further down the road.

The following day, November 24, will see the bloc's energy ministers once again meeting to agree on measures to reduce consumption and lower electricity prices. Some electricity prices have gone down recently after skyrocketing earlier this fall, a rise partly triggered by the war in Ukraine. Expect ministers to agree on joint gas purchases, solidarity between EU countries in emergency situations, and measures to limit gas price spikes. But an agreement on some sort of temporary gas price cap will probably remain elusive for now.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

About The Newsletter

The new Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he will continue to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.

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