President Joe Biden fell asleep on the other side of the world, and aides woke him up in the middle of the night with urgent news: A missile hit Poland, killing two people.
At 5:30 a.m. local time, the president was in Bali for the G20 summit, and Biden, still in a T-shirt and khakis, was on the phone with Polish President Andrzej Duda seeking clarification on the actual origin of the missiles – due to a Russian missile attack Potentially dire implications for NATO allies, this is a key fact.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who was traveling with Biden, was also awakened by a knock on his door at around 4 a.m. local time with news of the bombing — most U.S. officials only learned from public reports and discussions with Polish officials, a U.S. official said. dialogue.
Blinken and national security adviser Jack Sullivan spoke with their Polish counterparts and joined Biden on the phone with Duda.
Polish officials first began hearing about a possible explosion in the eastern border village of Przewodów at around 10 a.m. ET or 11 p.m. Bali time on Tuesday, the sources said, with information starting around 1 p.m. Open and inform allies in Bali.
As time went on and more intelligence came in, it became clear to U.S. officials examining satellite-based intelligence systems and talking to their Polish counterparts that the missile landed on a Polish farm in the far east of the country and appeared to be Launched by Ukraine as part of its air defense system.
After tense hours, Biden took the lead in defusing some of the tension, telling reporters that preliminary information indicated the missile was not launched by Russia.
The relief from U.S. officials is palpable. Contrary to their worst fears, initial intelligence indicated Russia was not deliberately attacking Poland, one official said. But for Biden and his advisers, the incident still represents what they have long feared: an accidental attack on NATO territory, the implications and consequences of which remain unclear.
With the situation so volatile, Biden advisers, including Ukrainian officials, have urged calm and patience.
About an hour after news of the incident broke, Vladimir Zelensky said in his nighttime speech that “Russian missiles hit Poland,” calling it a “very significant escalation” that required a response.
Sullivan quickly called Zelensky’s office after making those remarks and urged officials to be more cautious about talking about the matter, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden and Zelensky did not speak Tuesday night despite requests from the Ukrainian leader to arrange a call, a person familiar with the matter said.
The United States and Poland quickly agreed to cooperate closely on the attack, and CIA Director Bill Burns met with Duda in Warsaw on Wednesday night, a U.S. official said. Burns was crouching at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv just hours earlier when Russian missiles struck the city.
But the incident also caused some cracks in the West’s alliance with Ukraine.
Both Biden and Duda have now said publicly that the missile appears to have originated in Ukraine’s air defenses – a claim that Zelensky continues to vehemently deny, to the dismay of Polish officials, the sources said.
People familiar with the matter told CNN that while Biden spoke with Duda and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg after the attack and held emergency talks with world leaders at the G20 meeting, But as of Wednesday afternoon, the president had still not spoken directly with Zelensky.
Sullivan spoke with Zelensky’s chief of staff and Blinken spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmitry Kuleba, in the hours after the blast, the sources said.
Ukraine had also asked to join an investigative team of U.S. and Polish officials examining the location of the missile strike, Zelensky said on Wednesday. “We have to participate in the investigation,” he told reporters. But that request has not been approved.
Back in Washington on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley when an aide interrupted the blast and all three officials called Not long to their Polish counterparts.
Shortly after, at around 2 p.m., Pentagon spokesman Brig held a news conference. Minutes away from General Patride. But some Pentagon officials have only just heard from the media that a missile hit Poland, and the Pentagon has no evidence that the Russian missile hit NATO territory.
Pentagon officials had to decide whether to take it, knowing they had little to no information on what immediately became the most important item of the day.
In the end, the press center pushed ahead, arguing that canceling a news conference at the last minute would signal the kind of panic officials were eager to avoid, an official told CNN.
As Ryder stood at the podium, he repeatedly answered questions about the missiles, but he hadn’t gotten any answers yet.
Meanwhile, Milley was in his office on the Pentagon’s outer ring, directing his staff to answer the phone, officials said. First came his Polish counterpart, followed by his Ukrainian counterpart. Milley switched from phone to phone to other defense secretaries and to Gen. Chris Cavalli, the head of European Command, who was also on the phone.
Milley’s men worked to get his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, through the phone. The last time the two spoke was in late October, one of the few discussions they’ve had since the Russian invasion began. But this time, there was no phone call, nor did the two speak on Tuesday night.
That night, Milley and Austin briefed Biden on what they knew about the incident.
As of Wednesday, several senior U.S. officials said publicly that intelligence indicated the explosion came from a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile that accidentally landed in Poland. The U.S. also shared classified information with allies ahead of a North Atlantic Council meeting at NATO headquarters on Wednesday morning, an official said.
National Security Council spokesman Adrian Watson said in a statement: “We saw nothing that contradicted President Duda’s initial assessment that the explosion was likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense that unfortunately landed in Poland. Caused by missiles.”
Early inspections of the blast site revealed debris that appeared to be from a Soviet-era S-300 missile, sources familiar with the intelligence said. Multiple U.S. and NATO officials said the initial assessment was that Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles attempted to intercept Russian missiles, but missed and landed in Poland.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Duda said, “From the information we have and our allies have, it is a Soviet-made S-300 rocket, an old rocket, and there is no evidence that it was made by Russia. It was launched by the Ukrainian air defense system in all likelihood.”
The U.S. also determined that the Russian missile likely continued on its trajectory and either hit its intended target or landed near it, one official said.
Zelensky insisted Wednesday afternoon that the missile was not launched by Ukrainian forces. “I have no doubts that this is not our missile,” he told reporters in Kyiv, citing reports he had received from Ukraine’s armed forces and air force command.
Zelensky also expressed disappointment that Ukrainian officials were not allowed to join a joint Polish-U.S. investigation of the site, saying he wanted to see “the numbers on the missiles, because all missiles have numbers on them.”
“Do we have the right to join the investigation?” Zelensky said. “certainly.”
On Thursday, Zelensky confirmed that Ukrainian investigators would be given access to the site of the attack, acknowledging that Ukraine did fire an anti-aircraft missile. “I don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure. The world doesn’t know. But I’m sure it was a Russian missile, and I’m sure we fired it from an air defense system,” Zelensky said.
He added that only after the investigation would it be possible to draw conclusions about which missile landed on Polish territory.
This story has been updated with comments Zelensky made Thursday