There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing the past six years over the dangers of misinformation. Yet it doesn’t get more dangerous than misinformation with the potential to lead to a third world war, or possibly even a nuclear exchange.
That’s what happened Tuesday afternoon, Eastern time, when in the process of fending off a flurry of Russian missiles being launched at Ukrainian infrastructure, a Ukrainian defense missile killed two people inside Poland, a NATO member state. Mainstream press outlets and major figures quickly attributed the strike to Russia, and until the record was corrected by the Polish and US governments, public discourse was replete with calls for escalation against Moscow.
The whole saga was a firsthand reminder of two things: that the most dangerous and influential misinformation is often spread not from random bots or even little-known fake news outlets, but from mainstream press outlets, government officials, and other sources usually considered “authoritative” and beyond reproach; and that the war in Ukraine carries with it the risk of accidents and misunderstandings leading to a potentially catastrophic wider war.
Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster
What got the ball rolling was an Associated Press report published shortly after the incident, citing an anonymous US intelligence official who charged it was Russian missiles that had crossed into Poland.
This thinly sourced, one-sentence-long report soon spread like wildfire through the headlines of mainstream press outlets, which reprinted the story or re-reported the claim, including the Washington Post, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the Boston Herald, as well as non-American outlets like the Daily Telegraph, the Times, Sky News, and the Guardian. As Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols documented, by this point, some analysts had already raised doubts that the missile had come from Russia based on images of the debris.
Even as the normally hawkish Polish government stayed mum while they investigated, some government officials poured fuel on the fire. NATO member Latvia’s foreign and defense ministers both repeated the claim, as did Slovakia’s defense minister.
Ukrainian officials went the furthest, however. One Ukrainian MP’s assertion that it had been a deliberate “test” of NATO by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and that the alliance should invoke Article 5 — the collective defense clause, which gives NATO the option of militarily responding to an attack on any one member — was quickly taken up by others.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky charged that “Russian missiles hit Poland,” calling it a “very significant escalation” and saying that “we must act.” Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak asserted it was “not an accident, but a deliberately planned ‘hello’ from [Russia],” and the result of “when evil goes unpunished & politicians engage in ‘pacification’ of aggressor.” Defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said that this was why “we were asking to close the sky,” referring to earlier calls for a no-fly zone, the incredibly dangerous idea, adding: “Gloves are off. Time to win.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, dismissed the idea that a Ukrainian missile was the culprit — to be confirmed as fact by the Polish government only a day later — as a “conspiracy theory” and “Russian propaganda,” terms that have now definitively lost any meaning through their misuse in Western political discourse. He later disclosed he had pressed Secretary of State Tony Blinken for a “stiff and principled” response against Moscow.
NATO’s Article 5 isn’t an automatic trigger for war, and it’s hard to imagine most NATO states voting to go to war with Russia and risk nuclear conflict over the deaths of two people in Poland, as tragic as any loss of life obviously is. Still, as the fog of misinformation remained thick in the immediate hours of the accident — and even as President Joe Biden cautioned that “preliminary information” suggested it was “unlikely” the missile came from Russia — some US officials were already resorting to bellicose language.
Senate foreign relations committee chair Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) suggested the invocation of Article 5, similarly alluded to in a joint statement from Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), cochairs of the Senate NATO Observer Group, which said that “Congress stands ready to support Poland and all other NATO allies to ensure our collective security is guaranteed.” The Pentagon’s press secretary likewise affirmed that “we will defend every inch of NATO territory.”
They were egged on by voices like that of Anders Aslund, a hawkish analyst who had pushed for a no-fly zone at the very start of the war, and who repeatedly claimed it was a deliberate Russian attack. Despite acknowledging early reports that it may have been Ukrainian air defense missiles at fault, he nevertheless demanded that Joe Biden “act quite firmly,” specifically to “bomb Russia now” and “clean out the Russian Black Sea fleet.”
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in the ensuing panic, and Polish officials soon confirmed it had been a Ukrainian air defense missile. Yet despite both Polish and other NATO officials forgiving Kiev and laying the blame, quite fairly, on Russia for having launched the airstrikes that ultimately led to the accident, the Ukrainian government has absurdly continued to insist those weren’t its missiles, causing some disgruntlement with allies.
“This is getting ridiculous,” one diplomat from a NATO state told the Financial Times. “The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”
That Escalated Quickly
It’s worth pausing to think about who spread this particular bit of misinformation, which could have easily led to something calamitous: an anonymous US intelligence official, mainstream press outlets, government officials, and well-credentialed experts.
Under the kind of “anti-misinformation” internet censorship regime currently being constructed by the US national security state, all of these fall in the bracket of “trusted” or “authoritative” sources, which are implicitly less likely to be targeted for suppression and more likely to be allowed to set the narrative. It’s another example of the difficulty of evenly and fairly enforcing “content moderation” policy, particularly when it’s government driven and as it pertains to hot-button political issues.
But it’s also a reminder of the dangers emanating from the Ukraine war, even as the Biden administration appears to finally be embarking on a serious diplomatic push to try and bring it to a close. Stray Russian missiles or artillery hitting a neighboring NATO state or killing a NATO member’s troops are just the sorts of accidents that the advocates of restraint have warned since the start of the war could spark unintended escalation.
While that’s not what happened here, it remains a risk. Accidents happen all the time in war, as anyone who’s watched the US military accidentally incinerate families or blow up hospitals should know. And this episode has demonstrated how, even in the case of an accident, there’ll be no shortage of voices scrambling to declare it a deliberate Russian escalation and to put the pressure on for an aggressive response.
That’s compounded by the effects of the war-fevered political climate that currently exists in the United States and other NATO member states. The notion that Putin’s propaganda machine is all-powerful and acutely dangerous to the West has become so deeply ingrained that a situation now prevails in which nobody feels comfortable publicly acknowledging the veracity of any fact that might give comfort to some aspect of Moscow’s narrative or that might undermine some Western accusation directed at Putin — resulting, ironically, in a media and political climate characterized by the same kind of contrived uniformity of opinion in support of official policy (on the subject of Russia) that Putin has imposed on his own country’s media and political system.
As a result, Russia can be accused of virtually anything and it will be uncritically believed and broadcast as settled fact. All you have to do is look at the immediate US media response to the sabotage of Russia’s prized Nord Stream pipelines, where a parade of pundits and current and former officials blithely declared Moscow guilty of the attack with no evidence.
With these ingredients in place, it’s not hard to conjure a million different scenarios where things could get out of hand under the same conditions.
Diplomacy at Last
The one bright spot in the midst of all this is that the Biden administration has recently begun a cautious push to find a diplomatic solution to ending the war. This comes mere weeks after House progressives tried to open up the political space for him to do so and were viciously slapped down by a combination of hawks and Democratic partisans casting the idea of peace talks as treasonous, appeasement, dangerous, and so on.
A little over a week after that controversy, the Washington Post reported that the White House was privately nudging Zelensky to signal he was open to talks, while Italian newspaper la Reppublica similarly reported US officials were suggesting the Ukrainian retaking of Kherson could be the right time to push for talks. A few days later, the Ukrainian president happened to drop the major precondition of Putin’s ouster that he’d formalized into law a month earlier. That was around the same time we found out National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had been involved for months in the kind of de-confliction talks with Russian officials that pro-diplomacy voices had been urging to prevent escalation.
More leading US voices have made the case for diplomacy since. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently made the case in private and public that Ukraine “seize the moment” and enter negotiations. Retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey, far from a Russia dove, made a similar case on MSNBC, saying, “When you’re winning is when you use diplomacy.” Zelensky himself said in the wake of the Polish incident that he had “received signals” from Western allies “that Putin wants direct negotiations.”
The incentives to shift from fighting to talking are considerable. Shortly before all this, Milley had estimated Ukrainian and Russian casualties at a staggering hundred thousand a piece and offered his assessment that neither side could likely win outright militarily, an assessment reportedly shared by other allies. Besides all these factors and a coming, grueling winter, NATO states are worried that their weapon stockpiles are being depleted unsustainably.
Still, the diplomatic outlook remains far from settled. There are reported divisions within the Biden administration on the desirability of near-term negotiations, and the White House continues to stress that it’s not pressuring Ukraine into anything, and that it will keep up its support for its war effort come what may, presumably out of concern about domestic backlash if it’s seen as forcing Kiev’s hand. When officials leaked Biden’s private urging of talks to the Post, they framed it as a mere PR move to assuage concerns of the rest of the world — which could certainly be true, but given the raft of other reporting on this diplomatic push, it’s also likely to itself be PR to assuage domestic critics.
This is doubly so in Ukraine. The commander in chief of its armed forces — who is advised by, among others, the former leader of an ultranationalist movement who boasted about leading violent clashes with police during the anti-government protests that toppled Ukraine’s government in 2014 — has told Milley that Ukraine’s “goal is to liberate the entire Ukrainian land from Russian occupation,” and that “we will not stop on this path under any circumstances.”
Mission Creep With Nuclear Shadows
One thing that does seem clear is that the fighting and all its associated risks will keep going at least until the winter, and the Biden administration is already shows signs it’s settling in for a long-term mission.
Last week, the US military quietly announced it was stationing a three-star general in Germany to lead a new joint forces command called the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, possibly involving the thousands of US troops currently stationed in training centers in Poland and Romania. The Quincy Institute’s George Beebe and Anatol Lieven called it “a sign that the US is preparing for a long war in Ukraine and long-term military competition with Russia.”
Given the likelihood that the Ukraine-Russia war will prove to be a protracted conflict in which US involvement ensures that nuclear dangers will never be far away, the fevered climate of discussion on this subject bodes ill to say the least.