If Russian President Vladimir Putin felt he had not been clear enough that NATO’s continued support for Kyiv risks making it a combatant in the war in Ukraine, the missile barrage that struck a Ukrainian military base just 15km from Poland’s border made the threat brutally direct.
For western military officials, the attack on the base – which last month hosted US troops – was the latest in a growing list of provocative steps towards NATO by Moscow, from nuclear readiness to chemical weapons allegations. It emphasizes that the US-led military alliance faces an increasingly difficult task in avoiding conflict with Moscow while also encouraging its members to provide Ukraine as much support as possible.
The Yavoriv military base, where 35 people were killed on Sunday morning by Russian air-launched missiles, is known as the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security and was used by the US just a few weeks before Russia’s invasion began. Americans trained Ukrainian soldiers in how to use anti-tank weapons supplied by the west that have had such success in blunting Moscow’s advances.
The attack also came a day after Moscow warned that it saw convoys of military supplies from NATO countries – most arriving from Poland into western Ukraine – as “legitimate military targets”, ramping up the risk of a wider escalation.
The routes of these military supply convoys and the locations of storage and distribution centers inside Ukraine are kept secret. But western officials told the FT that Sunday morning’s attack showed how Russia saw them as a potential way to make the alliance think twice about the risk of being dragged into the conflict.
“It’s a serious move, we’re taking it seriously,” said a senior defense official from a NATO member state of the Yavoriv attack. The official said it could “scare some alliance members” who have pledged weapons to Ukraine.
“It simply came to our notice then. . . [Putin] does not want us to step up our support, ”the official added.
The strike on the training base also underscored one of Putin’s core arguments for invading Ukraine – to stop what he views as the unacceptable encroachment of US and NATO militaries in the country. It was the closest to Ukraine’s western border so far made by Russia, during an invasion that has almost exclusively focused on the south, east and north of the country.
It also comes after threats from the Kremlin of its nuclear capabilities and accusations in recent days by Moscow, Kyiv and NATO members that chemical weapons could be used in the war – a step that could be a potential trigger for intervention.
“If[Putin]uses any weapons of mass destruction then this will be a game-changer in the whole thing, ”Polish president Andrzej Duda said on Sunday when asked about western ‘red lines’. “[Nato] will have to sit at the table and they will really have to think seriously what to do, ”he told the BBC.
Since the invasion began NATO members have sent thousands of anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, ammunition and other military supplies to the Ukrainian army – supplies that have significantly bolstered its resistance to Russian advances.
But NATO, the US and other allies have refused to countenance any direct role in the conflict, which under the alliance’s mutual defense pact would mean a full-scale European war.
NATO has steadfastly ignored pleas from Kyiv – which were voiced again on Sunday after the Yavoriv strike – to set up a no-fly zone to stop Russia making missile and bomber attacks from the air.
US President Joe Biden reiterated on Friday that “we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine”, while stressing that the alliance would punish any attack on “NATO territory”.
In a statement issued in response to the Yavoriv attack, a Nato official said on Sunday: “There are no Nato personnel in Ukraine. Russia’s continued unjustified invasion of Ukraine is provoking untold suffering and destruction. It is condemned by the whole world and must stop. ”
“NATO’s core responsibility is to protect and defend all allies. We are reinforcing our collective defense to make sure there is no misunderstanding or miscalculation. NATO will defend every inch of allied territory, ”the official added.
Yet some analysts and officials saw the strike on Yavoriv – which before the invasion hosted the US Army’s Multinational Training Group-Ukraine mission – as a message to the west that the war could spread.
The missile attack on Yavoriv “is a middle finger shown to the US”, Daniel Szeligowski, head of the Eastern Europe program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a state-backed think-tank, said on Twitter. “Hope the Biden administration finally gets the message. Stop telling Putin what you will not do, tell him what you will do. ”