Poles Ask The Russian Question: Who Is To Blame For Smolensk?

Dear Readers:

Popular wisdom has it that Russians are fond of asking two major questions about life:

  1. Who is to blame? and
  2. What is to be done about it?

Well, as for Question #1, believe me, it isn’t just Russians who are interested in knowing, whom to hold accountable for all their problems.

Proof of this is my story today, which is about Poles, still trying to come to grips with what happened on April 10, 2010.  That’s when a plane carrying quite a lot of Polish government officials, including their President, Lech Kaczyński, crashed near Smolensk, Russia, killing all on board.

To quote wiki  for a quick and reasonably fair-handed backstory:

On 10 April 2010, a Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft of the Polish Air Force crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board. Among the victims were the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, the former President of Poland in exile Ryszard Kaczorowski, the chief of the Polish General Staff and other senior Polish military officers, the president of the National Bank of Poland, Polish Government officials, 18 members of the Polish Parliament, senior members of the Polish clergy and relatives of victims of the Katyn massacre. The group was arriving from Warsaw to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which took place not far from Smolensk.

Which one is Lech? I don’t know, they both look the same to me….

The pilots were attempting to land at Smolensk North Airport – a former military airbase – in thick fog, with visibility reduced to about 500 metres (1,600 ft). The aircraft descended far below the normal approach path until it struck trees, rolled inverted and crashed into the ground, coming to rest in a wooded area a short distance from the runway.

Both the Russian and Polish official investigations found no technical faults with the aircraft, and concluded that the crew failed to conduct the approach in a safe manner in the given weather conditions. The Polish authorities found serious deficiencies in the organization and training of the Air Force unit involved, which was subsequently disbanded. Several high-ranking members of the Polish military resigned, under pressure from politicians and the media.

Various conspiracy theories about the crash have since been in circulation, and are promoted by senior political figures in Poland, who claim the crash was a political assassination, but no evidence supporting this version was found in the Polish investigation

Yes, but Who Is To Blame?

Which brings me to two posts which I saw today in the Russian press.

Jarosław: “You dirty rats… You killed my brudder…”

This piece quotes Lech Wałęsa, former Solidarity Rebel and former President of Poland himself.  According to Wałęsa, it was Jarosław Kaczyński who caused the catastrophe.  When you look at Jarosław and you think you’re seeing double, that’s because Lech (Kaczyński, that is, not Wałęsa) and Jarosław are identical twins.  You kill one of them, there’s still another one left.  Genius!

And this other piece quotes a very bitter Jarosław himself, who hints at Dark Forces (hint:  Mordor) responsible for the plane crash, but still lays some “moral blame” on the government of  Donald Tusk.

Let’s turn to Lech’s version of events. Wałęsa, that is.  [usual yalensis disclaimer:  I am translating from Russian, which quote was translated from Polish, something may have been lost somewhere in the middle]:

“If the truth wins out,” Lech Wałęsa is quoted as saying, “and I am willing to bet my head on it on the chopping block, then accountability for the Smolensk tragedy should be laid on the Brothers Kaczyński.”  (The tragedy) “was a consequence of their irresponsible decisions, their desire to use Katyn (as a theme in the) electoral race, and so on.”

Heads Continue to Roll

The Smolensk catastrophe was just a big huge deal for Poland — for Poles this was like the Kennedy Assassination for Americans, only bigger.  Ramifications continue on and on… even now, six years later.

Macierewicz Changes His Story

About a month ago, 14 March, Poland’s Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz  came out with a startling accusation:  The Smolensk crash was the result of a TERRORIST ACT!  Macierewicz claimed that the purpose of this terrorist act was “to deprive Poland of the people who had led it to independence.”  The very broad accusation was obviously directed at Russia.  Macierewicz went on to connect the incident with other Russian mis-deeds, such as interfering in the affairs of Ukraine; not to mention earlier crimes, going back into the deep past:

Macieriewicz: “The Russians blew up our plane!”

Miller: “Er… no…. they actually didn’t…”

“One must recall,  that we (Poles)  were the very first victims of terrorism, in the 1930’s, and after Smolensk, we can say that we also became the first victims of terrorism in the contemporary conflict, which is unfolding before our very eyes.”

Russia’s Investigative Committee poo-poo’ed Macierewicz’s accusation and pointed out, that their own investigation had absolved the Smolensk dispatchers of any responsibility for the accident.  Russian version of the crash:  The plane flew too fast and too low in the fog, flight crew couldn’t see ground;  ignored ground dispatchers’ warnings; plane snagged a tree branch – BAM!

And then Poland’s own Prosecutor-General virtually wrist-slapped Macierewicz  for his alarmist assumptions.  The official Polish investigation was led by Minister of Internal Affairs Jerzy (pronounced “Yezhy”) Miller.  Jerzy waded through a mountain of factual material, and came to pretty much the same conclusions as the Russian side.

After which Macierewicz changed his tune and levelled a charge at the former government of Donald Tusk.

Is Tusk to blame?

According to Macierewicz (with his new story), President Tusk willfully falsified the investigation into the plane crash.  Furthermore, according to current Polish President Andrzej Duda, the crash was the result of “negligence” on the part of government officials of the previous administration.  I don’t know what the word for “negligence” is in Polish.  The Russian word is халатность (“khalatnost”), a sort of gentle word implying that some carefree nobleman is walking around wearing an oriental robe, a “khalat“.  But there is nothing gentle about the concept — in Russian, this is a loaded-trigger word, as it is in any language.  Because “negligence” is a legal concept, fraught with legal penalties.

On 31 March a regional court in Warsaw, Poland, began to examine the case of five Polish officials, accused of negligence in the organization of the trip which led to the plane crash.  While this was going on, Macierewicz has started to publish the findings of the official investigation into the crash.

Macierewicz continues to chafe at the official findings, he and Miller obviously don’t see eye to eye, on the issue of Russian guilt in the Smolensk crash.  A section of the Polish political elite are invested in the notion that the Russian government had to have been behind the catastrophe.  What else could explain the simultaneous deaths of 96 Poles, effectively beheading the Polish government and military, all in one fell swoop?  It couldn’t possibly have just been a chance accident, a result of human negligence, or random act of fate!

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17 Responses to Poles Ask The Russian Question: Who Is To Blame For Smolensk?

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    I have… “special” memories connected with what happened in Smolensk 6 years ago. I woke up very early from the sound of the TV shouting loundly in the nighbouring appartment (yeah, walls where I live are… yeah…). Half sleepy I decided to turn on the TV too to find out what’s the matter. And, oh boy, did I find it out.

    I remember crystally clear that upon seeing and hearing what have just happened (it’s been c. 8:30 AM in Moscow) I had 2 thoughts. The fIrst one “Oh, crap…”. The second one “Oh crap, Polaks gonna totally frame us for this!”.

    It was a special day also because I was invited to a rented banya in Moscow oblast to celebrate my friend and former classmate’s birthday and also to have an informal job interview for some also informal (but paying) work. Before going there though, I glanced through the net and, miraculously, found out about Mark Adomanis, then up-and-coming web-pundit and Russia Watcher on now defunct True/Slant site. Thus began my own “career”/”hobby” of reading and commenting foreign Russia watchers.

    All because of the Smolensk plane crash.

    P.S. As to whom to blame – isn’t it obvious?

    And you probably know that Stalin employed famous ESPer and psychic Wolf Messing, who could predict the future. “Coincidence? I don’t think so!” (c)


  2. Cortes says:

    Common calamities exist everywhere and always have, which is why legal systems develop protocols for dealing with them in family property and status succession rights. Equally, well organised states and powerful and super wealthy families with dynastic history and/or ambitions seek to minimise the possibility of common calamity by reducing the number of related people travelling together. During WWII, for example, the Duke of Kent, a member of the British royal family died in an air crash, as did Admiral Ramsay who coordinated the massive sailings used in the Normandy landings of June 1944. Towards the end of the 1940s, the Torino football team was involved in a common calamity, as was Manchester United in 1958. Nowadays it’s probably only sporting groups, groups of students or school pupils, and private individuals we expect to see affected by common calamity incidents.
    The fact that so many people connected to the Polish Government travelled together on the same plane ought to be the starting point for any rational discussion of the Smolensk disaster, just as it should govern the treatment of the Chinook helicopter crash in Scotland in 1994 in which several high ranking intelligence officers lost their lives. Fantasies of armoured birch trunks and the like cannot disguise the arrant stupidity of the Polish regime’s decision making.


    • Jen says:

      I wonder if it would have made more sense for the Polish contingent to have taken separate buses, trains or cars to Smolensk or even directly to the Katyn massacre site instead of all piling into the one plane.

      They would have all had to go through Belarus but surely Lukashenko could have seen to it that any entourage would have been able to reach Smolensk with minimal border hold-ups.

      Anyway, if they were all so stupid as to not foresee a potential tragedy from having so many of the political, military and economic elite packed into the one jet, Poland is probably better off without them and some Polish might secretly regret that (shhh!) the other Kaczynski twin was not on the plane as well.


    • yalensis says:

      Two examples from American history:
      1. Losing entire Figure Skating Team in 1961; and
      2. Buddy Holly/Big Bopper, etc. on “The Day the Music Died”


  3. marknesop says:

    I did a post on this not long after it happened – I never have been very good at posting on current events, and what I usually end up doing is writing a post about the terrible coverage of the event provided by some ignoramus. This was no exception, and it dates back to when I spent almost all my efforts against La Russophobe (who seems now to have vanished altogether).


    It was a good one in the sense that there was a lot of very interesting information available at the time which might now be hard to find. Some of the links may no longer work, but I checked a couple of them and they’re still good. A very much ignored role was played by a plane already on the ground whose passengers were all or mostly journalists – the crew of Kaczyński’s plane communicated with that aircraft, and someone in the cockpit of the plane on the ground encouraged them to give it a try although the Russian ATC had recommended they divert to Minsk. That conversation appears here:

    ” KVS: Temperature and air pressure, please.
    044: We greet you warmly. You know what, speaking honestly, it’s a bitch down here. Visibility is about 400 metres and in our view the bases are below 50 metres, thick.
    D: The temperature (incomp.), air pressure 7-45. 7-4-5, the landing conditions are nonexistent.
    KVS: Thank you, if it’s possible we’ll try to approach, but if not, if the weather’s bad, we’ll circle around.
    2P: Have you landed yet?
    044: Yeah, we managed to land at the last minute. But speaking frankly, you can definitely try. There are two APMs, they made a gate, so you can try, but… If you’re unable by the second attempt, I advise you to try, for example Moscow, or somewhere [else].”

    Additionally, as you will note, the American-made Terrain-Avoidance Warning System (TAWS) was recorded continuously transmitting “Pull Up! Pull Up!!”. It was apparently ignored. Kaczyński decided at the last minute to go, although he had not been invited, so preflight was probably rushed. Although the crew was made up of experienced personnel, they had not flown together previously. In a later conversation between the two planes, the plane on the ground advises Kaczyński’s plane that a Russian aircraft just made two attempts to land, and diverted to an alternate airfield.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, Mark, this is great stuff.
      I remember reading several pieces about this at the time.
      It appears that a half-drunken President Kaczyński ordered the crew to land, against their better judgement, because he didn’t want to be late for the Katyn ceremony.
      They were already running late, due to poor planning.
      Kaczyński considered Katyn to be his crowning glory, and he was going to get there no matter what.
      It was the classic scenario where the poor planning of the boss becomes the catastrophe for the staff.

      And by the way, I believe that many airlines have tightened up their protocols in recent years. They make it clear that the pilot has absolute last say on his craft and does not have to obey the orders, even of a president or king, if they try to force him to do something against his better judgement.

      This had been a problem also with some Japanese airlines, I believe, because the crew were bred to be too deferential towards “superiors”, such as their company president, and this had led to some crashes, when the crew was too inhibited to speak their mind about crazy orders they were given.


      • marknesop says:

        It was supposedly true that Kaczyński liked a nip once in awhile, but most analysts placed the non-crew voice in the cockpit as the Chief of Staff of the Polish Air Force. But he may well have communicated the President’s disapproval in the event they had to divert to Minsk, which would probably mean the ceremony would be over by the time they could get there via ground transport
        I made a serious error in that piece, by the way; I reported that the pilot had turned off his warning sensors, the TAWS. In fact, you can hear it (or read about its generated warnings) right up until impact, when the audio records the sound of the plane hitting trees. What I saw being turned off were the autopilot and the autothrottle. I imagine that would be perfectly normal in a case where the pilot intended to land the plane in hand control, or perhaps just wanted to get down as low as he could to ascertain if he could see the ground. Smolensk may not have had a fly-by-wire capability, in which case the pilot would have to control the plane manually in a landing.

        I’ve read that what did for them was lack of confidence in their warning system, because the altimeter showed that there was still a considerable distance from the ground when it was warning of terrain ahead. But that was because they were slightly to one side of the runway, and flying over a ravine, which created the false impression that there was sdtill plenty of distance between the plane and the ground. By the time they saw the trees at the opposite lip of the ravine, it was too late.


        • yalensis says:

          An awful, awful accident.
          I feel very bad for the pilot and crew – they shouldn’t have been pressured like that.
          On the other hand, they were accountable too, and it was their responsibility to say no to crazy commands to land the plane.

          Sure, they were worried about losing their jobs.
          But they should have thought of their families first.


    • Fern says:

      RT’s coverage of the Polish ‘reinvestigation’ of the Smolensk air disaster played the TAWS’ message over footage of the plane on its descent. Actually incredibly disturbing to watch and listen to – you know, what were those on board thinking? Even the most ignorant lay man (or woman) on the flight must have recognised something was wrong – just utter stupidity, hubris and recklessness on behalf of the Polish delegation.


  4. et Al says:

    CFIT (Controlled Flight Into terrain) & ‘Unstabilized approach’ are the two of the biggest killers since engines and aircraft are massively reliable. The latter, unstabilized approach is when for whatever reason, the aircraft is not on a stable and correct flight path to landing and the pilots still try to land despite this. It’s a big problem:



    And that’s even without the ‘special nature’ of the Smolensk flight.


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