Is it Time to Revisit Putin’s Role in the Smolensk Crash?

After the Smolensk plane crash, the speed with which the disaster became – not unlike Benghazi – relegated to “yesterday’s news” was stunning. An uninformed observer might conclude that what happened at Smolensk was but a minor incident, and didn’t involve the deaths of Poland’s president, and almost one hundred members of the military and political elite of a key U.S.-Central European ally on NATO’s border with Russia.


By Paweł Piotr Styrna | April 9, 2014


Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) introduced to his Russian body-double (second from right) by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Smolensk crash site, Severny Airport. (Source: Do Rzeczy)

Four years ago the Soviet-built Tupolev 154M jetliner carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and First Lady Maria Kaczyńska, leading a delegation of 94 Polish government officials, including high ranking civilian and military officials, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre – crashed on April 10, 2010 killing all aboard before landing at Smolensk, Russia, just east of the Belarus border.

“They were supposed to attend a second memorial service,” wrote Professor Nicholas Dima at the time in his article Katyn Tragedy Redux. “The first one had been held three days earlier, but President Kaczyński was irritated because Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had invited only the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, and the Russian leader had not mentioned the Polish officers massacred by the KGB (NKVD). Consequently, Kaczynski wanted a proper ceremony held at Katyn and was on his way to attend it.”  There’s a school of thought that believes Kaczynski took the bait and fell into Vladimir Putin’s trap.

In the short span of post-Soviet Russian history, 1991-to-date, the rise to power of KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin in 2000 can be characterized as an ongoing series of events marching towards the goal of re-establishing hegemony over the space once occupied by the former Soviet Union. Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, wrote in 2008, “The Soviet Union’s notorious secret service, the KGB, has returned under a new name and is now running the Kremlin.”

Perhaps the gauntlet was thrown down to the West in 2005 during Putin’s annual speech to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, our equivalent of a State of the Union Address, when he proclaimed: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”  This would be akin to a German chancellor’s statement that the destruction of the Third Reich was the major geopolitical disaster of the century. Subsequent hegemonic events can be highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the Polish airliner crash at Smolensk in 2010.  Now, in 2014, we see the blatant invasion of Ukraine and the bold annexation of Crimea, with the West being caught completely off guard.

Not that long ago, Vice President Joe Biden ridiculed Mitt Romney’s recognition of Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical threat.” The Republican presidential candidate, Biden sneered, failed to grasp that the Cold War was over. This was a common response to anyone suggesting, post-1991, that Moscow intended to rebuild its empire. Now, as Russian forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern frontiers, most scoffers have been rudely awakened.

After the Smolensk plane crash, the speed with which the disaster became – not unlike Benghazi – relegated to “yesterday’s news” was stunning. An uninformed observer might conclude that what happened at Smolensk was but a minor incident, and didn’t involve the deaths of Poland’s president, and almost one hundred members of the military and political elite of a key U.S.-Central European ally on NATO’s border with Russia – and under highly suspicious circumstances.

The eagerness with which the liberal post-communist Tusk government in Warsaw moved to sweep Smolensk under the rug – and the almost unquestioning and docile manner in which it accepted Moscow’s obviously deceptive explanations and its brazen cover-up – could easily reinforce such an impression. If Poland’s government is satisfied with the Russian narrative, why pursue the matter further? That seems to have been Team Obama’s rationale, at least officially, for rejecting a petition for an independent international investigation into the crash.

It was certainly a convenient excuse, but why was Warsaw so willing to swallow a patently disingenuous version of the Smolensk crash cooked up by Chekists trained to deceive, intimidate, and kill? If we rule out – for hypothetical reasons – the role of potential Russian moles and agents of influence (both in Washington and in Warsaw), then the most charitable explanation could only be that both the American and Polish governments feared they would antagonize Russia. This, of course, leads to another question: why would Moscow be angry about attempts to pursue the truth, if those pushing the Kremlin’s “pilot error” narrative of the Smolensk crash were indeed correct? Why suffer a PR debacle instead of putting all suspicions to rest and finally silencing those pesky Russophobic “conspiracy theorists”?

If the promoters of this “see no evil” approach hoped that it would appease Moscow, they were clearly naïve about Russia’s leadership. The scent of weakness further emboldens Putin.

But we shouldn’t forget Putin’s near immediate presence at Smolensk to personally oversee the crash scene like a good KGB Lt. Colonel, whose mission was accomplished. In fact, most startling of all should be the gathering that very evening with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, when Vladimir Putin introduced him to his body-double, for which a picture does indeed speak a thousand words.


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.