(CNN) — President Joe Biden was sleeping halfway around the world when aides woke him up in the middle of the night with urgent news: A missile had hit Poland, killing two people.
At 5:30 a.m. local time in Bali, where the president was attending the G20 summit, Biden, still dressed in a T-shirt and khaki, was on the phone with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda asking for clarification on d where he came from. missile had in fact been fired, a critical event due to the potentially disastrous implications of a Russian missile attack on a NATO ally.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was traveling with Biden, was also awakened by a knock on the door by his aide around 4 a.m. local time with news of the explosion, a US official said. news that most US officials only learned from public reports and conversations with Polish officials.
Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with their Polish counterparts and joined Biden on the call with Duda.
Polish officials began hearing of a possible explosion in the eastern border village of Przewodów around 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, or 11 p.m. Bali, sources said, and reports began to leak publicly and allies were notified. around 1 p.m. ET, or 2 a.m. in Bali.
As the morning progressed and more intelligence poured in, it became clear to US officials reviewing satellite intelligence systems and speaking with their Polish counterparts that the missile, which struck a Polish farm in the east of the country, appeared to have been launched by Ukraine as part of its air defense systems.
After several hours of anxiety, Biden was the first to ease some of the tension, telling reporters that early information suggested the missile was not launched by Russia.
The relief among US officials was palpable. Contrary to their worst fears, preliminary intelligence suggested that Russia had not deliberately attacked Poland, an official said. But for Biden and his advisers, the episode still represented a situation they had long feared: an unintended attack on NATO territory, the implications and consequences of which remained murky.
A call for calm for Ukraine
With the situation so fluid, Biden advisers have called for calm and patience, including from Ukrainian officials.
About an hour after the incident was announced, Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late-night speech that “Russian missiles fell in Poland”, calling it “a very significant escalation” that required a response.
Sullivan quickly called Zelensky’s office after the comments and urged officials to be more careful about how they discussed the incident, sources familiar with the call said. Biden and Zelensky did not speak Tuesday night, despite requests from the Ukrainian leader to establish a call, a source familiar with the matter said.
The United States and Poland quickly agreed to work closely together on an investigation into the attack, and CIA Director Bill Burns met with Duda on Wednesday evening in Warsaw, a US official said. Hours earlier, Burns had taken refuge in the US Embassy in Kyiv when Russian missiles rained down on the city.
But the incident also created cracks in the West’s alliance with Ukraine.
Biden and Duda have now publicly stated that the missile appeared to have come from Ukraine’s air defense system, a claim Zelensky continued to strongly deny, frustrating Polish officials, the sources said.
And while Biden spoke with Duda and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after the attack, and held emergency talks with world leaders at the G20, the president had yet to speak directly. with Zelensky on Wednesday afternoon, sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
Instead, Sullivan spoke with Zelensky’s chief of staff in the hours after the blast, the sources said, and Blinken spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
Ukraine has also asked to join the investigative team, made up of American and Polish officials, inspecting the site of the missile attack, Zelensky said on Wednesday. “We have to participate in the investigation,” he told reporters. But this request has not yet been granted.
Back in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley when an aide interrupted the announcement of the explosion and the three officials called their Polish counterparts. a little after.
Shortly after, around 2 p.m., a press conference with Pentagon spokesman General Pat Ryder was just minutes away. But some Pentagon officials had just learned of a missile that had hit Poland from the media, and the Pentagon had nothing to corroborate a Russian missile launch that had hit NATO territory.
Pentagon officials had to decide whether or not to prosecute, knowing they had virtually no information to provide on what immediately became the most important issue of the day.
Ultimately, an official told CNN, the conference went ahead, believing that canceling it at the last minute would signal the exact kind of panic officials wanted to avoid.
As Ryder stood on the podium, he received repeated questions about the missile for which he still had no answers.
Meanwhile, Milley was in his office on the Pentagon’s outer ring, instructing his staff to prepare several phone calls, authorities said. It was first his Polish counterpart, quickly followed by his Ukrainian counterpart. Milley jumped from call to call, speaking to other defense chiefs as well as Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of European Command, who was also on the phone.
Milley’s staff has worked to bring his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, online. The two men last spoke in late October, one of the only times they have spoken since the start of the invasion of Russia. But this time there was no call and the two never spoke on Tuesday night.
That night, Milley and Austin briefed Biden on what they had learned about the incident.
a clearer picture
On Wednesday, several senior US officials said publicly that intelligence pointed to the explosion of a Ukrainian air defense missile that accidentally landed in Poland. The United States also shared the classified information with its allies ahead of Wednesday morning’s North Atlantic Council meeting at NATO headquarters, an official said.
“We saw nothing to contradict President Duda’s preliminary assessment that this explosion was likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile which unfortunately landed in Poland,” the Security Council spokeswoman said. National Adrienne Watson in a statement.
Initial examinations of the blast site revealed debris that appeared to be from a Soviet-era S-300 missile, sources close to intelligence said. The initial assessment is that the Ukrainian air defense missile attempted to intercept a Russian missile but missed and landed in Poland, several US and NATO officials said.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Duda said that “according to the information that we and our allies have, it was an S-300 rocket made in the Soviet Union, an old rocket and there is no has no evidence that it was launched by the Russian side.It is very likely that it was fired by the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence.
The United States has also determined that the Russian missile likely continued on its course and hit or landed very close to its target, an official said.
Zelensky, meanwhile, continued to insist that the missile was not launched by Ukrainian forces. On Wednesday, he told reporters in Kyiv: ‘I have no doubt that it was not our missile’, citing information he had received from the command of the Ukrainian armed forces and air force. .
Zelensky also expressed frustration that Ukrainian officials were not allowed to join the joint Polish-American investigation of the site, saying he wanted to see “the number on the missile, because all the missiles have numbers”.
“Do we have the right to be part of the investigation team?” asked Zelensky. “Sure”.
CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.