A Tragic Accident

A little over 5 years ago, on April 10 2010, a Polish Tu-154 with numerous high ranking Polish officials crashed at the Smolensk airport in dense fog – all 96 people aboard were killed. Among the dead were then Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, the Poland’s general chief of staff and other senior officers, the president of the central bank, the deputy foreign minister, assorted other government officials, 18 members of parliament, high ranking members of the clergy and relatives of victims of the Katyn massacre. They had been on their way to a commemoration of the massacre, marking its 70th anniversary.

To bring readers up to speed on this event: the massacre was a series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by Stalin’s NKVD, the Soviet secret police. The first and largest of these executions happened in Katyn forest. It is estimated that the victims numbered 22,000 all in all. Soviet secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria proposed to execute all members of Poland’s officer corps in 1940, and Stalin and the politburo approved the proposal. When the mass graves were discovered by the German army in 1943, the Soviet government immediately moved to cover it up and blamed the Nazis – a ruse that was kept up until 1990, when Gorbachev finally admitted the truth, just one year before the Soviet system collapsed.



Exhumation of the dead in a mass grave in Katyn forest in 1943

Photo credit: Author unknown , via Polish Red Cross delegation


As might be imagined, the Katyn massacre has been a sore spot between Russia and Poland for quite some time, as they e.g. remained divided on the legal description of the crime (Poland wants to see it classified as a genocide), while Poland was for a long time not satisfied with Russia’s investigations into the event.

However, in April 2010, things took a turn for the better. Putin was Russia’s prime minister at the time and invited Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk to attend a Katyn memorial service together with him on April 7. Rumor has it that Putin intervened to have a 2007 film about Katyn shown on Russian TV for the first time. Poland’s president Kaczynski in turn was supposed to deliver a speech on April 10, in which he was among other things planning to stress the need for Polish–Russian relations to focus on reconciliation. Then the plane crash happened and the speech was never heard.


Plane Crashes Famous NamesRemains of the Polish TU-154 in a forest near Smolensk airport

Photo credit: Mikhail Metzel / AP Photo


After Five Years of Bizarre Accusations, the Truth Trickles Out

The plane crash proved fertile ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories, but the most unfortunate development was that Polish politicians misused it for a barrage of Russia and Putin bashing over the past five years. Sometimes it almost sounded as if they believed Putin had personally ordered fog to descend on Smolensk that day.

Polish military prosecutors have been investigating the crash for five years now, and one of their most recent moves was to indict two Russian air traffic controllers, trying to have them extradited to Poland for a trial. The worst effort was however that of Poland’s main opposition party, led by the late president Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslav. In spite of all official investigations concluding that poorly trained pilots were to blame for the crash as they tried to land in dense fog, Kaczinsky’s party maintained for the past five years that the crash was an assassination plot concocted by Vladimir Putin in cahoots with Mr. Kaczynski’s political opponents in Poland. Kacziynski has refused to attend Katyn commemorations ever since the crash.

Many people in Poland (some 20% according to surveys) actually believe the Kaczinsky version of events. However, it has now turned out that not even the air traffic controllers can possibly be blamed. In fact, they urged the plane’s pilots several times not to land. They even made a phone call to Moscow to make sure their instructions would be supported. They rightly thought that if they were to prohibit the plane from landing, it could be seen as an affront to the Polish political and military elite, and they didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident.

They did allow the plane to descend to a height of about 100 meters (328 feet), as they reasoned that the pilots would fail to be able to see the ground and decide voluntarily not to attempt a landing. Instead the pilots continued to descend, amid frantic attempts of the air traffic controllers to get them to pull up and the plane’s automatic warning system signaling the same.

An entirely new twist to the story has now suddenly turned up. Polish radio station RMF FM has published parts of the cockpit recording that had been deliberately suppressed by Poland’s investigators over the past five years. Both the chief of Poland’s air force and the president’s chief of protocol were actually in the cockpit and urged the pilots to land against the advice of the Smolensk air traffic controllers.

The air force chief can be heard saying to the pilots that “there is more than enough space” for a landing, and the chief of protocol is heard saying “we will try to land until it works”. In a report the military prosecutors in charge of investigating the case released just a few days earlier, all these facts continued to be withheld. The release of the report was combined with the above mentioned indictment of the Russian air traffic controllers. However, even absent the cockpit recordings, there was no way the controllers should have been blamed. The pilots clearly ignored their instructions. However, now we also know why they chose to do so: high ranking Polish officials in the cockpit kept putting pressure on the pilots.

Thus five years of incessant Putin bashing by Polish politicians are coming to an ignominious end – or so one would think. Jaroslav Kaczynski, who was and remains strenuously opposed to even the slightest improvement in Polish-Russian relations, immediately came out asserting that the “recordings are fake” and that clearly, the “criminal duo of Tusk and Putin” planned and executed an assassination. The Law and Justice Party which he leads, continues to stand behind this bizarre accusation.



Jaroslav Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice Party, the main opposition party in Poland.

Photo credit: Tomasz Gzell / PAP



For outside observers the whole thing must appear downright absurd. But it is actually an excellent example for the animosity that still prevails between Russia and many of its former satellites almost 25 years after the end of the Soviet Union. To this one must keep in mind that Stalin’s Soviet empire really was an “empire of evil” as Ronald Reagan once famously remarked when he thought no-one could hear him. Even a number of positive developments can actually be detected as an aftereffect of decades of communist oppression. For instance, in many former Eastern Bloc countries one can find a much greater concentration of pro-free market economists than anywhere else. As a rule, they have forgotten more about Mises and the socialist calculation debate than most Western mainstream economists will ever know. However, the aftermath of the Smolensk tragedy in 2010 demonstrates that these old enmities have plenty of downside as well. The willingness of Mr. Kaczinsky to milk this tragedy for years for propaganda purposes represents quite a low-point for the whole Putin-bashing industry.

As we always point out, there are certainly many things for which Putin justly deserves to be criticized, but the picture painted of the man in the West is often bordering on the ridiculous. All those hoping for “regime change” in Russia evidently have not the foggiest idea what they could end up dealing with after Putin. Contrary to what they seem to assume, the supporters of the Western-style welfare/warfare statism model are at best a tiny fringe group in Russia. Nationalists of both hard-left and hard-right flavor are a far stronger force – and they wouldn’t show the restraint exercised by Putin’s government it they ever came to power. It is a case of “be careful what you wish for”.




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2 Responses to “Surprise! Smolensk Plane Crash Wasn’t Putin’s Fault After All”

  • sufganiyah:

    This has been public knowledge for years. What happened in the cockpit was definitely not a secret. There was even an episode of Mayday TV series about this made over two years ago.
    I also question why the Russians don’t want to provide the missing evidence.

  • Description of this accident is quit objective, but we should mention that russians don’t want to give original recordings and rest of airplane elements. Without it final conclusion is not so sure..

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