‘Smoleńsk,’ two years later: Lingering questions but no evidence of evil plots

April 10 marks the sad second anniversary of the crash near Smoleńsk, Russia that killed 96 Polish dignitaries, including then-president Lech Kaczyński and high-ranking government and military officials. The crash was a national tragedy but Poland and its government continued to function and, after an appropriate period of national mourning, life returned more or less to normal. Unfortunately, “normal” in Poland has come to include bitter, politically driven public brawling, much of it over invented controversies that wouldn’t even be issues in most other countries, that is dividing the country and hurting its image. The “Smoleńsk controversy,” with its widespread but mostly spurious allegations of conspiracies and cover-ups, is a disturbing example of such controversies.

Those that don’t follow Polish-language media might not even know about the raging controversy; if they do, they probably don’t care. But since “Smoleńsk” continues to be flogged in certain circles, let me bring readers unfamiliar with the topic up to speed before explaining why, in fact, they’d be right to ignore it.

The “controversy” feeds on a medley of conspiracy theories, unfounded claims and partisan beliefs propounded by certain political factions in Poland (and by their sympathizers in Polonia; hence, this article) with the objective of “proving” their favorite conclusion: that the Smoleńsk “murders” were planned and carried out by the current Polish government, or by the Russians or (preferably) by both. It’s revealing that such claims began popping up literally within hours of the crash. Since then they’ve multiplied and grown increasingly fanciful—though, again, mostly in particular political circles; e.g.: the crash was obviously an assassination, engineered by President Kaczynski’s enemies in collaboration with the Russians (making Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his co-conspirators mass murderers); the Russians deliberately generated fog over the airport to disorient the Polish crew; immediately after the crash, Russian secret police roamed the site shooting survivors (proof, I guess, of the conspiracy).

A particularly amusing “theory” posits that the Polish plane didn’t crash at Smoleńsk, as evidenced by the alleged absence of major aircraft sections at the staged crash site. Variants of this theory assert that the plane disintegrated in the air (suggesting, I suppose, a bomb or an anti-aircraft missile—or perhaps just a few missing screws) or that the “real” presidential plane crashed elsewhere and the one at Smoleńsk was an empty “fake.” (Apparently it hasn’t occurred to proponents of the “fake plane” theory that Russian troops would not have bothered to execute nonexistent survivors.) Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention fringe-dweller assertions of involvement by you-know-who (after all, none of “them” were aboard the plane) and/or “post-communists.” (Curiously, I haven’t seen claims of space-alien involvement. Maybe I’m just not reading the right media.)

All those claims are patently absurd. To my knowledge, there isn’t a shred of credible evidence to support any of them. Although it would take a book to speculate about the motives and mindsets behind them, most of the conspiracy mongers seem driven by some mix of obsession, paranoia and political extremism. Also worth considering is the “conspiracy mindset,” a documented phenomenon that has entertained us with crazy theories about the U.S. (or Israeli) government’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks, President Obama’s fake birth certificate, UFO cover-ups, etc. The Smoleńsk theorizers appear unwilling to concede that airplanes occasionally crash for reasons unrelated to plots and conspiracies. Nor have any of the theorizers, to my knowledge, asked an obvious question: Whose bright idea was it to pack all those important government and military leaders on one worn-out (and Russian-built, no less) airplane in the first place?

Having reviewed the leading “Smoleńsk” theories, let’s return to the real world. Before I summarize the known facts about the Smoleńsk crash, let me explain Occam’s razor, a principle often invoked by scientists, researchers and investigators. Essentially, Occam’s razor states that, for a puzzling phenomenon or event, the simplest explanation consistent with observed facts is most likely the correct explanation. Applying that logic in this case leads to the most plausible explanation: The crash was the culmination of a series of decisions and factors, none of them individually extraordinary, that had nothing to do with evil plots or nefarious schemes. Put another way, there are no reasons to look for alternate, more complex and improbable explanations.

On to the facts…

Airplane crashes do happen. Even airplanes carrying presidents, generals and dignitaries have been known to crash. The overwhelming majority of such crashes are not the result of intentional actions or dark plots.

Its political significance aside, the Smoleńsk crash was a fairly typical aviation catastrophe, as the history of such accidents shows. Most crashes can be traced to a chain of decisions, actions and mechanical factors that, individually or even in combination with one or two others, might not have been catastrophic. All together, however, they compounded each other until their collective effects became insurmountable and led, unavoidably, to disaster. If there was a conspiracy in the Smoleńsk crash, it was the “conspiracy” of many undirected occurrences—a coincidental chain characteristic of most airplane catastrophes.

The decisions and events that led to the crash were influenced by other factors common in many circumstances: poor planning, communication failures, insufficient crew preparation, deficient training, poor judgment, a confusing chain of command and inoperative or inappropriate equipment. All the evidence suggests that blame for the crash lies with both the Russians and the Poles. The only arguably legitimate debate is about the proportion of blame borne by each side, but that’s a debate unlikely to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Speaking of blame, it’s important for Poles to understand a few troubling indicators about the crew’s actions and decisions. Among the most serious is evidence pointing to the unauthorized presence of at least one, possibly two, general officers in the cockpit during the landing approach. During critical points in a flight, only the pilot and his crew belong in the cockpit. If, as seems likely, Gen. Błasik, the commander of Polish air forces, and/or Gen. Buk, commander of ground forces, were in the cockpit, the pilot and aircraft commander, Capt. Protasiuk, failed to exercise proper command authority and good judgment. Moreover, the preceding scenario may (with emphasis on may) reflect fundamental flaws in the command and authority culture of the Polish military. None of the above is meant to impugn the professionalism, honor or legendary courage of Polish aviators. It’s merely the sort of critical assessment that any competent military organization is subject to.

According to international air traffic agreements (in this case, Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation), the primary responsibility for investigating aviation accidents lies with the country on whose territory the accident occurs. Understandably, crashes of military aircraft may involve different rules, but whatever the circumstances, the authority of the sovereign state on whose territory a plane crashes (in this case, Russia) takes precedence. All of this is academic, however, because in this instance Poland and Russia agreed to abide by Annex 13. (Suggestions that Poland was somehow coerced into agreeing, that the agreement is proof of collusion, etc. are just more nutty conspiracy theories.)

Some questions about the flight and its final phase remain and may never be answered, but they appear to be of little material significance and are likely irrelevant to the final conclusions. That’s true in most air crash investigations, so in that respect, too, the Smoleńsk crash was not unusual.

Finally, there are no compelling grounds for other countries, including the U.S., to get involved in the investigation. “Smoleńsk” is strictly a matter to be resolved between two sovereign countries: Poland and Russia. (On this point, those that insist Poland is not sovereign may benefit from professional intervention.)

In summary, political and symbolic meanings notwithstanding, the Smoleńsk crash was, in most respects, a typical example of such catastrophes. It has been adequately investigated, and while some questions remain, the factors that led to the crash are well understood and perfectly plausible. Simply put (and consistent with Occam’s razor), no sound reasons exist to look for (let alone invent) alternate or extraordinary explanations.

Yet there are some who, for political or personal reasons, stubbornly reject the obvious. Among them are folks that see sinister conspiracies behind everything they don’t like or understand—including a lot of things the rest of us have no problem with. For dealing with such people, I recommend two other well-established axioms: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof; and the burden of proving a claim lies with the claimant. Thus, those that continue to insist the Smoleńsk crash was part of a massive conspiracy involving one or more of “the usual suspects” are obligated to present conclusive proof of their claims. So far, we have seen no such proof, and I predict that we never will.

Of course, I might just be part of the conspiracy.

Andrew Ładak

Note: For two objective and reasonable perspectives on the crash, I refer readers to the following websites: www.popularmechanics.com/technology/aviation/crashes/Smolensk-Plane-Crash-Error and www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2011/07/poland-and-smolensk-crash

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