On Tuesday, Russia conducted nearly 100 missile strikes on military targets and the civilian power grid in Western Ukraine. Ukraine responded with its air defense missiles, shooting down about 70 of the Russian missiles. One Ukrainian woman was killed when a missile struck a residential area, and Ukraine’s already strained energy infrastructure sustained extensive damage.
Unfortunately, this exchange of rockets over the skies of Ukraine would have been an unexceptional day in the eight months since this war began. Except, this time, one of those rockets strayed from the intended battlefield into NATO territory. A Ukrainian air defense missile did not hit its intended target but instead struck Przewodów, a rural village in Poland just a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border, killing two people.
Initially, it wasn’t clear where the missile had come from or why. Confusion and fear reigned in the following 24 hours. An early Associated Press alert reported that a senior US official attributed the stray missile to Russia. Ukraine’s government echoed this interpretation, calling the attack a “significant escalation” that required a heightened NATO response. Russia denied that the missile was theirs and called it a “deliberate provocation in order to escalate the situation.” Poland’s response was more subdued, acknowledging that it would not have definitive evidence of the missile’s origin until it could investigate further.
This crisis illustrates the concept of the ‘fog of war.’ This phrase was first used in the 19th century to describe how it is impossible to have perfect information during a conflict. You can never be certain what an adversary has done, what an adversary can do, and what an adversary intends to do. Leaders must make decisions in this fog, and often they are pressured to make decisions when the fog is thickest, when they have the least information about what has happened.
The information environment becomes even more clouded in the age of social media, when rumors – and disinformation – spread faster than wildfire. In the hours following the crisis, government officials, experts, and amateurs were alight with speculation on Twitter, trading theories and accusations.
It was perhaps fortunate that, when this crisis developed, many world leaders had already assembled. The G20, a forum of the world’s 19 largest economies and the European Union, were meeting for a two-day summit in Bali, Indonesia. The morning following the missile strike, US President Biden called for an emergency meeting with present NATO members. From this discussion, leaders emerged with a united message: before any action is taken, facts must first be established through a calm and careful investigation.
A few hours later, Poland’s president announced that the rocket which had struck Poland had not originated from Russia but from Ukraine’s air defense system. The missile strike on NATO soil was a tragic accident caused by an unjust war, not a deliberate attack by Russia. For now, fears of escalation have calmed.
This incident underscores how crucial it is that leaders remain calm and steady in times of crisis. Decisions must be made with incomplete information, often in unideal circumstances. In this case, President Biden had just flown across the world to attend an important diplomatic summit in a time zone 13 hours ahead of DC. After a full day of events and meetings, he would have been jet-lagged and exhausted. He was shaken awake in the middle of the night to learn that a missile had struck a NATO ally – that it might have come from Russia – that the choices he made could impact whether this was the beginning of a major war between Russia and NATO.
It isn’t difficult to imagine, in those circumstances, how easy it would be to speak or act hastily, to make the wrong decision with limited information. That’s what makes the fog of war so dangerous. And in the nuclear age, the time constraints on decision-making are much greater, while the consequences of a mistake could be unimaginably high. Because the United States and Russia keep hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, leaders might believe they have only minutes to decide how to respond to a possible nuclear strike.
Since the outbreak of Russia’s war on Ukraine, experts have worried about the scenario of inadvertent escalation when the effects of battle spill out from Ukraine’s borders. Even if Russia and NATO do not intend to escalate this conflict, escalation cannot always be controlled.
As long as Russia wages a war at NATO’s borders, the risk of these kinds of incidents will continue. But we are not helpless. Right now, we should model the calm that we want to see from our leaders. We will need steady hands to see us through this war and the crises to follow.
However, we don’t just need wise leaders; we can and must lower the risks that unintended escalation leads to catastrophe. The United States could do so in several ways. We could take our land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert. We could make sure that that the decision to launch is not placed in the hands of just one person. We could make clear that we will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. We cannot eliminate conflict; we cannot eliminate uncertainty; but we can make sure that existential threats to humanity are not balanced on the judgment of a single person woken up in the middle of the night.