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NATO investigates a missile strike in Poland that killed 2 people

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Joining us now is Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. Joel, as we get more answers about what initially was thought to be a missile strike in Poland, NATO ambassadors are also condemning yesterday's deadly wave of Russian missile strikes across Ukraine.

What, if anything, Joel, are they likely to do here?

JOEL RUBIN: Yeah, A, it's great to be with you. And as more information comes in, this definitely will shape the response. And this is how the process is supposed to work - this horrible, tragic loss of life in Poland, two innocent individuals killed by this indiscriminate barrage of Russian missiles being shot at Ukraine. That creates a dynamic now where the decision makers go into NATO consultations and decide what type of collective punishment they may or may not want to do. The good news here is that we're getting more information quickly. That - this means that this will help to shape the decision in a clear way, as opposed to an ongoing debate back and forth about what really happened.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Now, since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, officials have expressed concerns about an inadvertent escalation. What's the risk here?

RUBIN: Yeah. Absolutely, A. This has always been the concern. Certainly, the administration talks about it a lot - spillover as a potential outcome of just this ongoing, seemingly endless Russian assault on Ukraine. And so what happens then is that the countries in NATO - they serve as a bulwark, in a sense a deterrent against the kind of expansion that we're concerned about. But spillover's spillover. And in war, these kinds of incidents can happen. And that's where it's good to have leadership like we have right now with President Biden, right there by coincidence, as your reporter said, in Bali, with other global leaders, to make sure that there's no miscommunication, that no responses are done in a way that's haphazard or that don't meet the actual requirement of response to Russia. But Russia needs to hear it clearly, as they are, that this missile barrage is unacceptable.

MARTÍNEZ: On the explosion in Poland, the president there says it's probably an accident. But I'm wondering, considering that the war has been going on for more than nine months and the lack of military experience for a lot of the people that have been pressed into action on both sides, should the world be relieved that things like this haven't happened more often?

RUBIN: No relief at all in this war - and Vladimir Putin doesn't seem to want to de-escalate, as he's fighting in a losing battle, clearly being pushed back by the Ukrainian forces. The best relief will be when he stops his assault on the innocent people of Ukraine - but in the meantime, the calling out of Russia's behavior, the international response, global-in-nature diplomatic process that we see unfolding, even in regards to NATO. And in a way, this is a bit of a test run for NATO to determine how to deal with the potential of spillover if a more serious incident does occur and it's deemed that Russia intentionally did it. So some muscles are being used and warmed up right now. But this is a very dangerous situation. And Russia is testing the limits regardless of whether or not they intended to hit Poland.

MARTÍNEZ: On NATO for a second - they did not address Article 4. Germany's foreign minister says NATO - in a meeting - that they didn't address it. But what would it take to invoke that kind of response, which would be providing emergency consultations for one of the allies who believes it's being threatened?

RUBIN: Well, essentially, if Poland says it needs this and if it submits - only once has Article 5, the other article that we most often talk about regarding NATO, which is the mutual defense response - only once has that been invoked, and that was by the U.S. We requested it of NATO back after 911. So it would be up to Poland to initiate and get that moving. It sounds as if they're not there yet, but certainly the country affected is the one that takes the lead on this, and that's the consultative diplomatic process that's designed for this kind of dynamic so that there aren't mistakes made and that there are not inadvertent escalations that can spill out of control. In many ways, this structure is working as it should.

MARTÍNEZ: You said the response right now is the way it should have been going - right? - I mean, to take a step back and not be rash or anything like that. I mean, is this NATO's first big test with this war in Ukraine?

RUBIN: Yes, I think it is. You know, this is not a tripwire. NATO and the structure in Article 5 is organized in a way where decisions can continually be made moment by moment by moment. And so now for Poland, assessing, understanding what's happening, making a decision on whether to go forward and seek additional NATO support or not - that's the process underway, as it should be. But we're likely to see more tests in the near term, certainly as Russia continues to get more desperate in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.

Joel, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO LANES' "TRANSCEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.