The Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, and his entourage perished in Smolensk, Russia only miles away from the Katyn killing fields, where Stalin’s Soviet NKVD perpetrated a genocidal massacre of the Polish elite in 1940.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna | May 23, 2013
April 10, 2013 marked the third anniversary of the Katyn memorial flight that mysteriously crashed in Smolensk, Russia killing the President of Poland, his wife and 94 members of his pro-American government. The independent parliamentary commission popularly known as the “Macierewicz Commission” named after its chairman, the Honorable Antoni Macierewicz, recently published its latest findings. The Smolensk Report is currently available in Polish. Following is an English-language summary.
The Georgian prelude
Nearly four months after the Russian invasion of Georgia, on November 23, 2008, the motorcade transporting Presidents Lech Kaczyński and Mikheil Saakashvili was fired upon near the border of the break-away Georgian province of South Ossetia. The Russian media, in the wake of the August 8th invasion, immediately (and counter-factually) spun the story as an alleged Georgian false flag (i.e. “inside job”). In Poland, the prime minister, the media, and even the intelligence agencies—as if on cue—parroted the Kremlin’s line, blaming Kaczyński of the Law and Justice opposition party for supposed recklessness. Bronisław Komorowski—now President, then Speaker of the Polish Parliament—dismissively made light of the assassination attempt in Georgia: “The assassination attempt was a failure, just like the presidential trip, because only a blind sniper could miss a car from 30 meters.” The Smolensk Report points out “the ‘Georgian incident’ might have been a test to verify how Poland’s intelligence agencies, political elites, and the media would react at a time of the greatest peril.” Clearly, the assassination attempt at that time against Poland’s head of state demonstrated that the liberal/post-communist government was more willing to accept even conspiracy theories peddled by the post-Soviet media rather than transcend partisan differences and rally around the president (pgs. 19-21).
The rigged bid to repair the plane in Russia
Russian intelligence manipulated the tender to repair the Polish government’s Tupolev 154 Ms to suit Moscow’s agenda. The Kremlin steered the entire process with the express intent of securing the contract for the Aviakor corporation in Samara, Russia. At the time, the company was owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin friend and loyalist.
In the fall of 2008, Aviakor was informed by the company Polit Elektronik—the Polish-based but completely Russian-owned exclusive representative of Russia’s MiG aviation company—that Polit had won the tender, even though the Polish bid was officially closed in January 2009. Then, in February 2009, the Polish Ministry of Defense, headed by Bogdan Klich of the Civic Platform Party, once again called for bids, simultaneously rigging the process in favor of the consortium formed by Polit Elektronik (i.e. MiG) and MAW Telekom (whose deputy head of the board of directors was a retired general, Henryk Tacik, who studied at the Moscow General Staff Academy in the USSR in the late 1980s). This ensured that Aviakor would conduct the repairs, in spite of the company’s horrible record of shoddy workmanship and tardiness when repairing Slovakia’s Tu-154Ms. Bumar, the Polish company that had handled such repairs in the past and contracted them out to the Moscow-based WARZ-400 “Vnukovo” company, lost the bid since the Kremlin banned any other Russian enterprises, except for Aviakor, from refurbishing the Polish planes.
It should be pointed out the liberal Polish defense minister turned down the idea of the head of the Polish Air Force, Gen. Andrzej Błasik (who perished at Smolensk), to equip the aircraft with an anti-missile system. The rationale was the ostensible need to rein in costs – the very same pretext invoked by the Tusk government in response to demands by Polish conservatives and pro-Western officers to scrap Soviet-made planes—which were quickly becoming obsolete and prolonged Poland’s technical-military dependance on Russia—and purchase modern Western aircraft instead. At the same time, Klich’s agency turned a blind eye when Aviakor not only inflated costs but also failed to meet deadlines.
According to the Smolensk Report, the Polish government failed to ensure the security of the repairs taking place in Russia. Only one military aviation observer was dispatched to Russia, but his sojourn was limited to Samara itself, while many parts of the aircraft were sent to sub-contractors in other parts of Russia, such as the Saturn works in Rybinsk. The fact, that Russian reporters from the Rossiya 1 channel were able to gain access to the Polish Tupolev that eventually crashed at Smolensk—without Warsaw’s knowledge or permission—demonstrates the aircraft was left essentially unprotected. Further, the Tusk government and its security agencies ignored repeated warnings by the Polish media that the plane might have been bugged, or even worse.
Immediately upon taking delivery of the aircraft, the Poles experienced an increasing number of defects and errors. Compared with the first quarter of 2009, the number of defects rose by 250 percent in the first quarter of 2010. Yet, the Polish security agencies failed to check the plane thoroughly and never requested NATO double-check the aircraft’s condition after it returned from Russia.
Communist-era agents in charge of the Katyn visit
The liberal government in Warsaw not only failed to protect its own aircraft, but also put communist-era agents in charge of the official memorial visit to Katyn.
An important role in Donald Tusk’s own “reset” with Russia, a policy which led to the intentional marginalization of the late President Lech Kaczyński, was played by Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld. Archival evidence reveals Rotfeld had been a communist secret police agent (pg. 37). As head of the Russian-Polish Group for Difficult Matters (which is to ostensibly serve as a forum for official dialogue on historical controversies), Rotfeld opposed any comparisons between post-Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. He was responsible for the softening of the Polish government’s approach towards Katyn, which the previous Kaczyński cabinet viewed as a genocidal act and the Tusk government downgraded to a mere “war crime.” It is noteworthy, the authors of the Smolensk Report point out, only a few days following Rotfeld’s February 2010 visit to Moscow, Tomasz Turowski departed to work for Poland’s embassy in Russia’s capital.
Turowski, whose involvement in organizing Kaczyński’s visit has raised eyebrows, had been an officer of communist Poland’s intelligence service. He was stationed in Western Europe, where he joined a monastic order, allowing him to infiltrate the Catholic Church and to spy on Polish émigrés. Following the “collapse” of communism, this red spy worked for Poland’s Foreign Ministry and in 2001-2005 represented the country as its ambassador to Castro’s Cuba. The involvement of someone with Turowski’s past by Radek Sikorski’s foreign ministry demonstrates both incredibly poor judgement on the part of the Tusk government and the internal influence of characters with Soviet communist pedigrees.
The head of Poland’s secret service “blows off” Kaczyński
In spite of a warning received by Poland’s security services shortly before the crash that an EU aircraft might be hijacked, and despite a series of terrorist attacks within the Russian Federation, Warsaw’s security agencies remained passive and oblivious. This might be interpreted as mere incompetence and a lack of professionalism had the Smolensk Report not revealed that Gen. Marian Janicki, the former head of Poland’s secret service (BOR), ordered his men to “blow off” anything related to Kaczyński in retaliation for the president’s refusal to promote Janicki (pg. 53). Following the Smolensk crash, Komorowski and Tusk not only did not fire Janicki, but actually promoted him, even though his actions left an entire presidential delegation without secret service protection.
Given the ruling Civic Platform Party’s dismissive and cavalier attitude towards the president’s security, it is not surprising that chaos and confusion reigned in Warsaw’s emergency command center right after the crash. The Foreign Ministry’s email services were suddenly down on April 10, 2010, and its representative at Severnyi Airport contacted the media about the disaster prior to reporting to the ministry. Further, although a secret service officer claimed that four ambulances were spotted leaving the crash site, they admitted the BOR had no idea where these casualties were taken (pgs. 59-60). Not surprisingly, the Head Control Chamber, Poland’s government oversight agency, gave both the foreign ministry and the secret service a failing grade.
Technical experts point to explosions as the most likely cause
The scientists and engineers working for the Macierewicz Commission maintain their hypothesis that the most likely cause of the Smolensk disaster was a series of explosions, which caused the aircraft and passengers to disintegrate.
The commission states in its report that “the Russian side and the [Polish] commission headed by Jerzy Miller intentionally falsified a lot of evidence, the transcripts of the cockpit exchanges in particular” (pg. 76). This was no doubt that the conversations between the Polish pilots and the Russian air traffic controllers are crucial, showing the Poles wanted to divert to an alternate airport. The Russian controllers were willing to agree to this, but were pressed by Gen. Vladimir Benediktov, the head of the “Logika” center in Moscow, to land the plane (pg. 81).
As Mr. Macierewicz wrote: “What seems to be, in the end, the decisive cause of the crash is not attributable to the [Russian] air traffic controllers [however], but in all probability an explosion, which destroyed the aircraft while airborne. The tragedy most likely began at a distance of one kilometer [.62 miles] from the airstrip and approximately one second away from the location of the ‘armored birch’ tree. One by one, various key mechanisms and elements of the aircraft (the wings, engines, and generators) were destroyed. When the plane approached an altitude of 17-15 meters [55-49 feet], the entire power system failed. The final explosions occurred just above ground, while their traces were identified by Polish analysts working on a prosecutorial expert opinion for the company Small Gis (…)” (pgs. 5-6).
The first signs of engine trouble began 0.5 seconds (approx. 40 meters/131 feet) before the alleged encounter with the birch tree. In this context, suspicions arise since the Russians erased the last 0.5 seconds of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) using the Russian-made program WinArm32 (pg. 84). According to a key item of evidence, the crash site report generated by the Russian prosecutors on April 10-12, 2010, elements of the wreckage were found before the birch tree and about 120-140 meters before ground impact (pg. 7). In fact, the Miller Commission Report discreetly tucked away into its appendix information that the aircraft flew at an altitude of 20 meters (66 feet) above the birch tree (pg. 83). Further, as the Smolensk Report states, the disintegration of the left wing started one second before the alleged striking of the “iron birch” (pg. 88). Also, the system registered a fire in the plane’s start engine after the TAWS#38 alarm (pg. 90), as the Tupolev’s power supply failed, while the aircraft was still airborne (pg. 91).
Finally, the large expanse of the crash site area, (8,000 square meters/86,111 square feet) along with the sheer number of wreckage parts (over 4,000), not to mention their shrapnel-like character, point to an explosion.
Computer simulation of an explosion within a Tu-154M-like cylinder (left) and a piece of the wreckage (right)
Handing the investigation over to Russia was illegal
Initially, Moscow proposed a joint investigation with Warsaw—in line with the Russo-Polish agreement of 1993—which would grant the Poles equal prerogatives on par with the Russians. This changed following Tusk’s meeting with Putin and the decision to follow Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention of 1944—a treaty applying only to civil aviation, not military or official/governmental flights—which handed the investigation over to the Kremlin.
Since this shift occurred right after a secret verbal deal between the Russians and unidentified government representatives on the Polish side, it became invalid since the Polish parliament would have had to ratify any such changes in the legal basis of the crash investigation. However, since the Miller Commission was established pursuant to the 1993 agreement, the Tusk government’s decision to abandon that treaty deprived the Miller Commission of any legal raison d’etre. This was certainly the argument the Kremlin utilized to dismiss the Miller Commission’s experts’ moderately critical comments regarding the FSB-engineered MAK Report.
In fact, Moscow failed to adhere to the demands of Annex 13, which required the Russians to make every effort to secure all evidence and the wreckage. Warsaw, in turn, failed to utilize certain favorable annex clauses, such as the right to ask the Russians to secure, provide access to, and even return the wreckage, along with the black boxes. The Kremlin was legally bound to return the remains of the Tupolev after MAK declared its investigation closed in January 2011.
Finally, Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention allowed Russia to “delegate the entirety of a part of the investigation to another state or regional organization investigating air crashes.” Thus, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) offered its assistance on April 13, 2010, but Warsaw declined.
As the Smolensk Report shows, under Donald Tusk and Bronisław Komorowski, Poland has certainly been behaving more like a Russian satellite than a sovereign independent state.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.