Case on the Smolensk Air Crash

By Pawel Piotr Styrna l September 2, 2011

Pan Am 103 wreckage assemblyFarnboroug Jerzy Miller and MAK Gen. Tatyana AnodinaTupolevTU-154M wreckage assembled at Smolensk

On July 29, 2011 the Polish Government’s Commission to Investigate National Aviation Accidents, headed by Interior Minister Jerzy Miller (generally referred to as simply the “Miller Commission”), published its report on the tragic plane crash of April 10, 2010. The air disaster, which occurred at Smolensk North Airport, a decommissioned former Soviet military airbase, near the city of Smolensk in the Russian Federation, near the border with Belarus, claimed the lives of the late President Lech Kaczyński, the First Lady of Poland, Maria Kaczyńska, and ninety-four other members of the nation’s political elite. This included top military commanders; Anna Walentynowicz, often considered the “mother of ‘Solidarity’;” the president of Poland’s central bank; and, the director of the Institute of National Memory, a research institution responsible for documenting Nazi and Communist crimes in Poland as well as vetting government officials (i.e. verifying whether a candidate for office collaborated with the communist secret police).

Such tremendous loss of life came as a great shock to much of the Polish population. For many younger and middle-aged Poles, the catastrophe of Smolensk constituted the greatest single national tragedy to occur during their lifetimes. The fact that the presidential delegation perished whilst en route to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre – a Soviet genocide of over 22,000 Polish officers and other members of the nation’s elite during World War II – served only to exacerbate the painful aspect of the Smolensk crash. After all, the disaster site was located only twelve miles (nineteen kilometers) from the NKVD killing field of Katyn.

From the very outset, the controversial handling of the Smolensk plane crash investigation by both the governments in Moscow and Warsaw raised many questions and provoked numerous suspicions. On the one hand, President Medvedev established an investigative commission, to be headed by Prime Minister Putin. Both Russian leaders also offered their condolences to the grieving Poles, while ordinary Russians placed flowers and candles in front of Polish diplomatic posts in Russia. On the other hand, the Russian side contaminated the crash site, destroyed evidence, and refused to hand over the original black boxes, which constitute the legal property of the Polish state.

Comparing the Russian investigation, for example, with the British investigation, in the wake of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing of December 21, 1988, reveals the highly unorthodox nature of the Kremlin’s approach. Whereas, the Russians allowed the Smolensk crash site to be carelessly trampled and contaminated, British policemen and soldiers at Lockerbie, Scotland immediately secured the crash site and carefully combed through the wreckage. In addition, they employed helicopter surveys and satellite images. Over 10,000 pieces of debris were tagged and entered into computer databases. The Ministry of Transport investigators at the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) meticulously reassembled the aircraft wreckage inside a secure hangar at Farnborough Airport to establish the exact cause of the crash. By contrast, MAK, the Interstate Aviation Committee in Moscow that oversees civil aviation accidents for the Commonwealth of Independent States – not including Poland among them, has collected large pieces of the Tupolev-154M and crudely assembled them on the tarmac at Smolensk airfield. Moreover, the Kremlin investigation was politicized at the outset by the president’s appointment of the prime minister to head the controversial crash investigation. Visitors to the unsecured crash site near Smolensk have managed to locate bone fragments of the TU-154 M disaster victims weeks and even months following the tragedy. Last but not least, the British authors of the July 1990 Lockerbie Report clearly allowed the evidence to guide them to their conclusions. The drafters of the MAK and Miller Reports, on the other hand, labored under the duress of a preconceived political hypothesis.

Further, the Russians pinned the blame squarely on the Poles from the very outset, alleging that the reckless and incompetent pilots strove to land at any price under pressure from an intoxicated Gen. Andrzej Błasik (commander of the Polish Air Force) and an irritable President Lech Kaczyński. From the day of the crash, the Russian side has clung steadfastly to this version, which became the overarching thesis of the crash report generated by the Russian-controlled Interstate Aviation Committee (Mezhdugosudarstvennyi Aviatsionnyi Komitet or MAK) on January 12, 2011.

Although many Poles considered these Russian claims as a deeply insulting case of blaming-the-victim, the government of Poland – which dominated the post-communist liberal Civic Platform Party – has meekly eschewed any attempts to assert its prerogatives. In fact, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s cabinet agreed to proceed in accordance with Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention, thereby allowing the Russian side to assume control of the investigation. It is important to note that the Chicago Convention deals specifically with accidents in civilian aviation, despite the fact the TU-154 M flight was clearly non-civilian but a presidential-military one.

Admittedly, on the day of the publication of the MAK Report, Poland issued its own comments. Formulated by Polish aviation experts, the document pointed out plentiful errors and omissions in the Russian report. These include, but are not limited to, the fact that the Russians ignored a Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) analysis, which proved: the pilots issued the command to “go around” at 100 meters; the pilots were provided with false landing coordinates; and, the Russians failed to hand over evidence requested by the Polish side. Yet, the “comments” did not constitute an official government report.

The right-of-center opposition, centered around the late President Lech Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), criticized the Polish government for docility and servility vis-à-vis Russia. Frustrated by what appeared as collusion between the Polish and Russian governments to obscure the truth about the causes of the Smolensk plane crash, the opposition established the “Parliamentary Team to Investigate the Causes of the Catastrophe of the TU-154 M on April 10, 2010.” This body came to be known as the “Macierewicz Commission” after its chairman, PiS Deputy Antoni Macierewicz, a former anti-communist dissident, Interior Minister, and head of military counter-intelligence. As a politician in post-communist Poland, Macierewicz had consistently sought to decommunize the country’s political system and to counteract the influence of post-Soviet Russia in Poland. The unofficial Macierewicz Commission had conducted an independent analysis of the causes of the crash, culminating in the so-called White Book (Biała Księga).

Published and presented on June 29-30, 2011, the White Book has assigned responsibility for the crash to the Russian authorities and the Polish government, the former bearing the lion’s share of the blame. According to the document (see pgs. 113-118), Moscow coerced the Russian air traffic controllers at Severnyi Airport to bring down the aircraft and provide misleading coordinates to the Polish pilots. The government in Warsaw, in turn, failed to guarantee the Polish President the minimum of security. It also blocked proposals by the Law and Justice Party to replace old Soviet aircraft with modern Western planes.

Furthermore, as the correspondence contained in the White Book demonstrates (see pgs. 24-35), the prime ministers of both countries – Putin and Tusk – colluded to “eliminate” their common political adversary, President Kaczyński, from the joint Russo-Polish Katyn commemoration. In fact, the Foreign Ministry of Poland, headed by Radosław Sikorski, allowed the Russians to decide whether they wish to hold the ceremony with both Kaczyński and Tusk, or only with the latter. Predictably, the Kremlin chose to avoid the Polish President. Hence, in an awkward display of Polish disunity, the scheduled visits were split up. PM Tusk was to attend the commemoration ceremony, along with his Russian counterpart (Putin), on April 7, with President Kaczyński scheduled to participate in a separate one on April 10. This fateful decision to marginalize Kaczyński was a product of political antipathies in general, and, in particular, Putin and Tusk’s eagerness to sign an energy deal, effectively rendering Poland dependant on Russian natural gas supplies for almost thirty years, state the authors of the White Book.

Last but not least, the document has confirmed numerous facts undermining the official Russian version of the causes of the crash. The most significant of these is an analysis of the American-made onboard computer (conducted in the U.S. by University of Maryland physicist Kazimierz Nowaczyk), demonstrating that the aircraft lost all power not at the moment of impact, but approximately fifteen meters above ground. According to Nowaczyk, the crash resulted directly from “two great shocks.”

The Macierewicz Commission has eschewed drawing definite conclusions at this juncture. However, some physicists in Poland – such as Prof. Mirosław Dakowski – have gone as far as suggesting a Russian assassination operation employing, most likely, a thermo-volumetric charge. According to this interpretation, such an explosive could have been installed in the aircraft whilst the Polish Tupolev underwent repairs in the Russian city of Samara in December 2009, only five months before the crash.

No doubt, under the double pressure of the Macierewicz Commission and the upcoming October parliamentary elections, the Polish government has finally published its long-awaited report. The culprits in the Miller Commission’s report were the pilots, who allegedly lacked sufficient training, and their unit, the 36th Special Transportation Air Force Regiment. This was interpreted as a clear attempt by the government to shift the blame away from both the current Polish leadership and the Russian authorities. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich, Deputy Defense Minister Czesław Piątas, along with thirteen officers, including three generals, were dismissed as a consequence of the Miller Report. The 36th Regiment was also dissolved. Yet, these measures generated criticism from the opposition, which argued that a cabinet which bore so much of the blame for the Smolensk catastrophe should have resigned immediately. Those who viewed the government’s dismissals as a farce felt vindicated by the fact that PM Tusk rated Bogdan Klich as a competent Minister of Defense and the Civic Platform Party offered him a place on its ballot during the upcoming elections.

Antoni Macierewicz assessed the Miller Report as nothing more than a “translation” of the Russian MAK Report. He further pointed out discrepancies between Minister Miller’s statements and the contents of his report. For instance, Miller claimed that the pilots could not perform a “go around” maneuver without an ILS at the airport whilst the report states the very opposite. Even so, the Miller Report admits that the pilots were not recklessly attempting to land at any price, nor were they pressured by a drunken Gen. Błasik. It also timidly confirms what amounts to gross negligence on the Russian side, including incorrect coordinates provided by the air traffic controllers. In this sense, the Miller Report, in spite of clear efforts to appease Moscow, demonstrates the unsustainability of the undiluted version of the Russian-generated pilot-error hypothesis.

The Miller Report has by no means closed the case on Smolensk. In spite of its publication, key questions remain. The report certainly hasn’t assuaged the opposition. Antoni Macierewicz has declared that once the Law and Justice Party wins the October parliamentary elections, the new government will approach the issue with greater assertiveness and press the Russians to return all the evidence, contaminated and tampered with as it may be. Many Poles continue to believe they are being deceived concerning the true causes of the catastrophe, and such a conviction is likely to keep the issue alive during the upcoming months, if not years.

Although official Polish-Russian relations have warmed in the wake of the Smolensk tragedy, the perception of a malicious Russian cover-up rather easily breeds hypotheses pointing to an assassination of Poland’s pro-Western president, Lech Kaczyński. Without greater transparency and cooperation forthcoming from the Russian side, Polish-Russian relations are likely to deteriorate in the long-term, particularly after the likely electoral defeat of the current coalition ruling Poland.

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.