Russia report on Lech Kaczynski plane crash irks Poland

This week's official Russian report on last year's tragic plane crash puts blame squarely on Polish officials and may undo some of the good will that has brought Poland and Russia closer together.

Mikhail Metzel/File/AP Photo
In this April 11, 2010 file photo, Russian investigators work near the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane, that crashed just outside the Smolensk airport, western Russia.

Pilot error and pressure to make an ill-advised landing from a tipsy Polish airforce chief were to blame for last April's crash of a Polish military airliner that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others on their way to a meeting intended to cement Polish-Russian reconciliation, according to the official report on the tragedy by Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee.

The crash, on the anniversary of a Soviet mass execution of Polish officers in World War II, had the unexpected effect of improving relations between the two historic antagonists, as both sides came together to mourn the victims and pledge a full and objective investigation of the tragedy's causes.

But the findings of the official 200-page report (pdf), unveiled Wednesday at a Moscow press conference, may undo a lot of that good will. Placing blame on Polish officials for the crash, and also suggesting that Polish political pressure may have provoked the pilot to make the landing attempt, the report is triggering outrage among the many Poles who still harbor suspicions that Russian secret services may have had a hand in the disaster.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in a press conference today, called the report "incomplete." "If I am concerned by anything, it is by the political context of Russia's investigation," he told reporters in Warsaw.

Polish airforce commander BAC was 0.06

The inquiry concludes that the Polish crew of the Tu-154 airliner were underqualified, made bad in-flight decisions, and were subject to pressure from their high-level passengers who were determined to land, despite dangerous weather conditions and against the advice of ground controllers, in order to attend a joint Polish-Russian ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

"The technical commission has established that serious organizational flaws, poor pilot training and preparation of this particularly important flight... led to the catastrophe," the report says.

Head investigator Tatiana Anodina said that Polish airforce commander Gen. Andrzej Blasik – who had a blood alcohol level of 0.06 percent, enough to impair reasoning – and Poland's protocol chief, Mariusz Kazan, were in the cockpit and bantering with the crew as the plane approached Smolensk. The two officials' presence on the flight deck "had a psychological influence on the pilot's decision to take an unjustified risk by continuing the descent with the overwhelming goal of landing by all means necessary," Ms. Anodina said.

Poland's political opposition, who blame Prime Minister Tusk for moving to improve relations with Russia in the first place, are slamming the report as biased and intentionally insulting toward Poland.

"These are the results of the decision made by Donald Tusk to hand over the investigation to the Russians," Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice Party and twin brother of the president who died in the crash, told journalists in Warsaw. "Today we are facing the consequences of this decision in the form of a report, which puts the full and one-sided blame on Polish pilots and Poland without any evidence," he said.

Mr. Kaczynski called the report "a joke against Poland."

Russia defends findings

But Russian aviation experts defend the report, which they say was fully revised to take into account Polish objections after preliminary findings indicated pilot error last year.

"There is simply no reason not to trust this report, which includes a second-by-second analysis of the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversations analyzed by top specialists," says Roman Gusarov, editor of the online journal "There are no technical details that weren't thoroughly examined."

Reacting to the storm of controversy – and some persistent conspiracy theories – on display in the Polish press Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov begged Poles "not to speculate" about the disaster.

"Emotions are running high, and if you add emotions to politics you always get a combustible mix," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It's very unfortunate that after coming together over this tragedy, some people are now going separate ways.

"But it doesn't need to spell the end to reconciliation efforts between Russia and Poland, and perhaps Russia needs to take the initiative," in putting them back on track, he says.

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