Russia's war on Ukraine: Amid risk of nuclear conflict, truth must not be allowed to become a casualty – Stewart McDonald

“Putin Bombs Nato” was the headline one paper went with. The others offered a range of less brazen headlines – from “Russian missiles hit Poland” to the more cautious “Russians blamed for fatal strike on Poland”, while online reactions were about as measured as could be expected.

An aerial view of the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with Ukraine (Picture: Wojtek Radwanski and Damien Simonart/AFP via Getty Images)
An aerial view of the site where a missile strike killed two men in the eastern Poland village of Przewodow, near the border with Ukraine (Picture: Wojtek Radwanski and Damien Simonart/AFP via Getty Images)

“Article 5” – the part of Nato’s charter which recognises that an attack on one Allied state is an attack on all – was trending on Twitter while talking heads and anonymous accounts alike speculated about the possibility of nuclear war. Less than 24 hours after the news of the incident broke, it became clear that these reactions had little grounding in reality.

Even the speculation about Article 5 was half-baked. Its provisions are the cornerstone of the North Atlantic Treaty and one of the most famous international agreements in the world. It states that “an armed attack against one or more [Allied states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them” – a clause commonly understood to mean that an armed attack against one Nato state would lead to the whole alliance going to war.

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However Article 5 concludes by stating that the alliance must take “such action as it deems necessary” in reaction to the armed attack. This could be as little as a strongly worded letter – if that was what the alliance thought was appropriate.

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But those journalists and social media watchers were not alone in being blinded by the fog of war: even among Nato allies there was no consensus about the attack at the time of writing, with Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating explicitly that a “Russian-made” missile had landed in their territory just as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was saying that there was a “general impression that this missile is not Russian made”. The public statement of these wildly differing opinions following a crisis is an act which damaged the credibility and stability of the alliance – and it is a mistake that Nato members must be careful not to repeat.

It doesn’t just look bad when allies go freelance – it plays directly into the hands of the Kremlin. Following the incident, and the diverging reactions across the West, Dmitry Peskov – Putin’s spokesperson – put out a statement condemning Poland for its “hysterical and frenzied Russophobic reaction” and praising the United States and President Joe Biden for the “restrained and professional reaction”. Meanwhile, the head of state-controlled RT Margarita Simonyan, issued a statement saying that “a Nato country is so badly protected that anyone can accidentally hit it with anything and all of NATO will not even know who hit it, with what and why.”

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Make no mistake: the Kremlin has no interest in an honest evaluation of policy in Poland or the United States. The Russian government – as has long been known – seeks out any opportunity to sow division and discord within and between democratic states. We should be careful not to give them the chance.

This incident might not be the last in what is likely to be a protracted war of attrition against a paranoid, isolated and unpredictable Vladmir Putin. And, on balance, Nato reacted well: Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was explicit about the need to remain composed and prevent unnecessary escalation while most heads of state also made the case for calm until more information could be found. Unlike the sensationalist headline writers and online pundits, Article 5 was never on their lips.

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That confusion in the public sphere, however, should give us all pause for thought. There are multiple nuclear powers directly and indirectly involved in the war in Ukraine, leaving little room for mistakes and miscalculations. And while Poland did back away from invoking Article 4, which would have recognised that its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” had been threatened, those brief moments of ambiguity show just how easy it would be for one small spark to ignite a full-scale war.

Among the ambiguities and unknowns, however, there is one eternal truth in this war: that these people would not have died if the Russian government was not intent on waging a war of colonial conquest against a sovereign state. None of them would. Instead, Vladmir Putin chose to conduct a terrorist campaign against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine – and that was a decision entirely of his making and for which he must one day face trial.

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Until then, when incidents like these take place, all of us, whether we write tweets or newspaper front pages, should remember that this is a war where truth is a battlefield of its own. Sensational half-truths help no-one – they distort the information environment and cause unnecessary panic and alarm.

On one hand, it barely bears repeating; on the other, it cannot be said often enough. But nuclear war is a possibility which must be avoided at every single step – and every person watching this conflict has a responsibility to play in that. As former US President John F Kennedy reflected after the Cuban Missile Crisis, borders, nations and wars mean nothing to nuclear particles. “We all inhabit this small planet”, he said. “We all breathe the same air. And we are all mortal."

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Stewart McDonald is the SNP MP for Glasgow South, his party’s spokesperson for defence, and a member of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee

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