WHEN reports first emerged on Tuesday night of missiles striking Poland and killing two people, you could almost sense the collective global intake of breath.

I’m not the only one I bet who in my mind’s eye imagined the Doomsday Clock moving inexorably towards midnight.

That the clock is a metaphor and not a real-time measure of how close the world is to self-induced catastrophe was of little comfort as childhood memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis during the Cold War also came to mind.

As one of the most recognisable symbols of modern times, never since its original setting in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have the hands of the clock stood as close to midnight as it does now at 100 seconds.

Symbolic the clock may be, but it serves as a reminder of the dangerous times in which we live. Tuesday night was another all too real reminder also of how Russia’s war in Ukraine could so easily escalate with unimaginable consequences.

READ MORE: Missile into Poland unlikely to have come from Russia, says Biden

Only hours before news broke of the missiles landing in Poland, world leaders at the G20 summit in Bali had issued a joint declaration condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine adding to speculation as to what, if anything, the response might be should the missile turn out to be Russian.

It didn’t take long for talk of Nato Articles 4 and 5 possibly being invoked even before certainty over what actually happened had been established. Article 4 of course provides for the alliance’s 30 members to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

Article 5 meanwhile is that part of the North Atlantic Treaty that binds all Nato meaning an attack against one member is considered an attack on all.

The speed with which talk of invoking either or both grew on Tuesday is a measure of how easy it would be to slip into the abyss before all factors are considered.

There was a palpable sense of world leaders urging calm and media outlets stressing the need for confirmation of reports and not jumping to conclusions, a tell-tale sign of the realisation as to just how much was at stake.

It was unclear for example if Russia had used a Cold War hotline – installed after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – to speak to Washington to calm the situation.

As Daniel Fried, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Poland, rightly summed it up speaking to Foreign Policy magazine, when it comes to “the larger speculation of whether this is a Russian attack, whether this is a major escalation, then you have to hold your breath and say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s get the facts first”.

This cautionary approach, fortunately, appears to have been the order of the day, for as I write an investigation is still ongoing as to the origin and factors behind the missile or missiles hitting Poland six miles from the Ukrainian border.

That said, both Polish president Andrzej Duda, US president Joe Biden and Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg have all indicated that the blast was most likely caused by Ukrainian air defence – possibly intercepting Russian missiles according to one analysis.

The National: Two people were reportedly killed by missiles that hit PrzewodowTwo people were reportedly killed by missiles that hit Przewodow

Doubtless, there will a lot of hand-wringing in the days ahead within Nato’s ranks. There will also be yet more accusations and counteraccusations from both Russia and Ukraine. Already Moscow has done what it does best by denying everything.

For his part Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy insisted with uncharacteristic assumption – and without producing evidence – that it was Russian missiles that had hit Poland, in what he called a “significant escalation” of the conflict.

IF we can take any comfort from the way Nato and its allies in Poland and elsewhere responded on Tuesday, it’s the fact that first and foremost it was calm, calculated and coordinated. Despite the obvious initial concern, there was no jumping the gun of a kind that could have made an already tense situation worse.

Stoltenberg, to his credit, when asked whether this is the tensest moment of the war so far for Nato, replied with admirable level-headedness saying he is “careful” about ranking risky moments and only alluded to ongoing “dangerous situations” caused by the conflict.

Frankly, this is precisely the response required right now when faced with the regular miscalculations and callous recklessness that has become Russian president Vladimir Putin’s modus operandi when it comes to prosecuting his war in Ukraine.

Make no mistake whether this was an accident, miscalculation, or deliberate strike, it was a testing moment for Nato. By handling it with a cautious, fact-based approach and sharing of intelligence among allies to avoid misunderstanding helped take the immediate heat out of a potentially incendiary situation.

In that regard, it might go some way to quelling the sometimes-shrill insistence emanating from certain quarters that Nato is simply itching for a fight with Russia.

And, turning to the real aggressor here, it’s hard not to agree with those like Stoltenberg, that whatever the outcome of any investigation into what happened in the village of Przewodow, Russia ultimately bears responsibility.

Let’s not forget that the explosion in Poland came at the height of what was one of the biggest waves yet of Russian missile strikes during the nine-month-long war targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.Those Russian missiles rained down on cities including on Lviv, which is not far from the border and about 50 miles from Przewodow.

By any measure, it was one of Russia’s broadest aerial assaults against Ukraine with about 100 missiles landing across the country.

This is a responsibility that the Kremlin cannot shirk or shy away from. The cost to innocent Ukrainian lives is something that it cannot deny.

Tuesday’s events in Poland were both a warning and a wake-call.

A warning that Russia is only intent on pummelling Ukraine’s infrastructure and people relentlessly at every opportunity.

A wake-up call that it takes only the slightest miscalculation to create an escalation in this war to a degree few of us have ever really paused to consider.