Friday, April 10, 2015

Five years ago

Today is the fifth anniversary of the  crash of the TU-154 in Smolensk, killing all those on board among whom was the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a number of other high-placed military and civilian personnel. They were on their way to take part in a memorial to the victims of Katyn and the crash occurred close to that place. (This blog noted the event at the time.)

There is a good analysis on the BBC Russian Service about the situation with regards to the Smolensk crash at the moment. It is in Russian but if you ask Mr Google nicely he will translate it for you into gobbledygook masquerading as English. Anyway, it will be comprehensible.

On the whole opinion seems to be divided and, as it happens, I was told not so long ago by a Polish lady who lives and works in Britain that many people say that there is something odd about that crash. I pointed out that Russia had nothing to gain from killing Kaczynski who was going to sign an agreement after the Katyn memorial event and, in any case, even if he was not over-popular his death changed nothing. It's not that I cannot imagine the Russian government ordering his murder, I explained but there has to be a reason. The mass murder of Polish officers in 1940 was an eminently rational decision; the bringing down of the TU-154 was not.

For all of that there are many in Poland, particularly supporters of the Law and Justice Party. Others maintain that it was an accident, there being rather a lot of fog at the time. From the very beginning there were rumours that President Kaczynski who was known for high-handed actions and whom pilots disliked intensely insisted on the aeroplane landing where it did despite the dangerous situation.

This week the Polish radio station RMF FM broadcast hitherto unheard recordings from the pilot's cabin that supported that theory with journalists concluding that the President's aides were putting pressure on the pilot to begin his descent to the Smolensk aerodrome, Severny, despite the thick fog. Military prosecutors, on the other hand, pronounced the recording to be unreliable.

Meanwhile the investigation that is being conducted by the Polish military procurator has been extended for another six months. Meanwhile, the country has yet another tragedy to mourn. Anyone would think Polish history was not already full of them.

CORRECTION: I have been told by a journalist friend who has been working on the story that I made a mistake in this account. RMF FM did not broadcast the recordings. Only a "murky and ambiguous" text version was leaked to them, together with some unverified additions. The Polish military prosecutors have insisted that the RFM'a interpretations of the text are inaccurate and taken out of context.


  1. I pointed out that Russia had nothing to gain from killing Kaczynski - as well as it didn't seem to gain much from killing Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, or Nemtsov to name a few, invading Georgia or Ukraine, putting down MH17 etc etc.

  2. I don't agree. From a certain, fairly easy to understand point of view, the murder of Litvinenko was entirely rational. Firstly, he was one of them who had gone over to the other side and secondly he was delving into the story of the apartment blocks that exploded. Everyone who tried to investigate that story has come to a bad end.

    There were several murders of people like Politkovskaya and the result is always the same: a strong critical voice is silenced. Pure gain if you think criticism is criminal Nemtsov? Hard to tell at the moment. MH17 is likely to have been shot down by incompetent Ukrainian "separatists" who should not have been armed for that kind of behaviour. Quite possibly those responsible have already disappeared from Ukraine.

    Whereas nothing was gained from the air crash and nothing could have been gained.

  3. Silencing the critics is exactly the point. Remember that late President was arguably one of the most and prominent critics of Kremlin back in 2010, his hardline towards the rise of the Empire in the East was well-known and for many uncomfortable. Also, he was one of the very few in Europe who not only voiced against Russia's invasion in Georgia but himself went to Tbilisi accompanied by a handful of other European leaders, thus creating sort of 'human shield' and helping stop the war. Some people say that had Kachinsky been alive by 2014 the whole Ukrainian story might come some other way, pretty less favourable to the Russian side.

    You may have missed it, but the level of hatred in Russian state media and particularly in social media towards Poland and K. himself was increasing steadily during all the preceeding years reaching its boiling point after 2008. And, characteristically, the seemingly orchestrated 'bone dancing' after Smolensk in comments sections of Russian (and beyond) online media was something absolutely filthy.

    Last, but not least, after the crash, all the communication devices, including mobile phones, satellite equipment, coding system, confidential documents and more of NATO's country top military command was immediately in Russia's hands. Which is, if you're dreaming about establishing 'Russian World' from Vladivostok to Lissabon, priceless.

  4. With regard to MH1, from everything we know so far, it is highly unlikely that a sophisticated powerful anti-aircraft missile system has ever been handed over to the separatists. It looks like it has came from Russia with its crew onboard, made one fatal shot, and returned home immediately after.
    To say more, some argue (although it's not confirmed) that to hit a high speed target at 32,000 feet successfully it must be highlighted by a separate radar system. And we never heard that such a system has ever crossed the border.

  5. Well, I don't know about MH17 and others who know more are speculating as well. So I cannot pronounce. The chances of Kaczynski still being President in 2014 were slim and, in any case, Polish leaders were the strongest critics in the EU of Russian behaviour. They could not order NATO troops into eastern Ukraine and neither could have Kaczynski. But the present lot (as well as Tusk who is now an EU politician) have fought strongly for the sanctions and would like to see more. That's what I mean about it making no difference and nobody could have pretended that it would make a difference unless we are arguing that Vlad and his mates are completely insane. I am not sure about all those coding systems and vast amounts of NATO information. Was it really on the plane that was flying to Russia and if so why? Surely basic understanding of security would have prevented them from burdening themselves with anything like that. Besides, given the number of officials in Eastern Europe whose allegiance is still to the former Soviet Union, that sort of information can be got by the Russians less spectacularly. Or so Ed Lucas keeps telling us.

  6. Well, what you're saying is logic of a sane person, and this is clearly something Kremlin not always sticks to. As I mentioned before killing its critics gave Moscow much more pain than gain (after Politkovskaya was killed Putin himself has put it rather bluntly saying that her murder 'brought us more harm than her articles'). Still, despite wide range of available instruments to silence critics they choose the most cruel ones. So, to me, killing poor Lech Kaczynski is no less 'rational' than all the others (not to mention the blown up Moscow apartments). He was clearly labelled as an enemy, along with Ukrainian and Georgian leaders of the time, at least by Russian propaganda machine, and we all know what is advised to do with an 'enemy who doesn't surrender'.
    Secondly, there is little doubt that Poland's reaction to the annexation of Crimea and subsequent events in Donbass even with Kaczynski in opposition would have been very different. Chances are that unlike his successors he would rather act than talk. We don't know whether he'd send troops/weapons to Ukraine or advocate much harder measures against Russia, or push Obama to do something more than endless expression of concerns, but neither do Kremlin.
    Ironically enough, the phrase 'Putinu eto nevygodno' always comes as a top defensive line of Russia's propaganda machine in every dirty case where the hand of Kremlin is suspected, and in itself may serve as a marker.
    This doesn't necessarily imply that Smolensk crash was a foul play. I only want to point out that we cannot say there was no motive as we're trying to apply our logic to something quite different to it.

  7. Just a couple of rather good contemplations on the matter, should you wish to explore more: and

  8. Well, we can go on about this for a long time and will no doubt return to it. I do not, for one moment, consider that it is impossible that the crash was foul play but I do maintain that there is some logic behind the various actions and killings even if there is also miscalculation. The blowing up of the Moscow apartments helped to restart the Chechen war and to bring Putin to power. What's irrational about that? Politkovskaya's murder worse than her articles? I think that is a very fine example of disinformation.

    As for a harder line on Ukraine, what exactly could Kaczynski have done? Let us be reasonable: NATO would not have sent troops under any circumstances and why should they? Poland does not have enough troops to take on Russia. So what would he have done? Demanded sanctions and aid for Ukraine? That is what we have had from the existing leadership.

    It looks to me frm the titles of the two articles that they take a certain position, which is different from mine so I really shall have to read them.

    1. By saying their logic is different I didn't mean they're irrational. It's rational in deeds, but appears to be pretty much perverted from moral perspective. And, to my opinion, knocking down the plane with an enemy of the state and his fellows on board - provided that it doesn't cost you anything and you can get away with it easily - goes clearly along the same lines with blowing up the apartments, poisoning hostages during Nord-Ost siege, Beslan, Litvinenko, Nemtsov - the ends justify the means as they put it.

      One theory says that the goal was not to kill Kaczynski, but rather to divert him from Katyn, making it impossible for a plane to land - a mere state hooliganism, and thus, the tragic outcome was just an excessive act. But even if so, they should have been aware how it all might have ended up, and certainly took the risk.

      Regarding to what Kaczynski could have done to help Ukraine oppose Russian incursion. As I said before, looking from 2010 no one could predict how exactly the events would be unfolded/ But (if we presume that Ukrainian campaign has been mapped out in advance) there was little doubt that Kaczynski would do anything he could to hamper it.

      What could it be? This is an interesting question and it can be put a wider sense: was there anything that could be done to stop Kremlin on its course to bring Ukraine to heel?

      Looking back at Russian-Georgian war one can single out a few important things that, among others, arguably helped Mikheil Saakashvili to stop Russian tanks when they were just a couple of dozen miles from Tbilisi. And these are the things that we failed to see in Crimea.

      First, Georgia has avowedly said that it was under attack, declared the state of war and ordered its troops to fight back. Second, Saakashvili (with swift help from his fellow presidents of Ukraine, Poland and Baltic states) has rang all the bells and pressed all the buttons possible to secure huge international support to Georgia. As the result, the US Navy ships were sent to the Georgian shore (maybe ritualistic to some extent, still efficient gesture), and, what appeared to be much more effective (and, to my opinion the most effective) measure: a permanent humanitarian aid supply link was established in Tbilisi airport by means of US cargo plans with clear USAF insignia on them. You certainly wouldn't want to continue your military operations, knowing that one wrong shot could immediately lead you to the real war with America, unless you're prepared to. And finally the same day when US planes started flowing in - the handful of European leaders, led by Lech Kaczynski made personal appearance, hand in hand, before the crowd of thousands in Tbilisi, thus turning themselves, albeit symbolically, into some sort of human shield.

      Simplistic it may be, still it gives us some hint to what might be done (and was likely to be done should Kaczynski be alive) to prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea, and possibly, discourage it from incursion in Donbass. Why it hasn't been done is a whole different question.

  9. By the way, I really do not think Putin is mad. It is just that he is not quite as good at calculating the odds as he seems to think and as many in the West simply accept. By the many I do not mean his supporters. Often it is his opponents who seems to exaggerate his fantastic abilities.