Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS
It was Poland’s moment of 9/11. These were the words of one of close friends of the deceased Polish President Lech Kaczyński, describing personal reactions of many to the news of what will probably become known as the Second Katyń in the annals of Polish history. He is right. Not only the Poles received the brief first message with incredulity, disbelief and a slowly sinking realisation that this wasn’t a surreal episode from a bad Hollywood blockbuster, but a grim new day for the Polish nation. And everyone instantly recognized how cynical the human fate can be, given the context, destination and purpose of the President’s journey.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen” – such was the first thought which crossed my mind after learning about the crash of the ageing Tupolev 154, carrying the first Polish couple and their entourage. My Estonian is too basic to make sense of full sentences, but it was sufficient to connect the dots after hearing the words “Poola”, “president” and “lennuk” in once sentence on the radio news programme on that late Saturday morning. It was sufficient, because more than once in the past I thought to myself, watching successive Polish presidents — Kwaśniewski, Kaczyński – and, occasionally, Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania – ascending to that plane, that this was not the best piece of equipment to fly your head of state in.
Robust military ethos and prudent risk assessments matter a great deal, to the point of separating life and death. Such would be a scholarly insight into what may have happened on that plane at its last moments of flight. The investigation will reveal the causes in due time, but some bits of evidence are informative: the pilots continued their attempts to land in thick fog, even after being told by the traffic control to divert. Bar some technical malfunction which left no other option but to land right there and then, this tells a lot about the mindset of the air force officer in command of the plane and about the relationship between the military and their political masters in Poland.
But let’s unpack these observations one by one.
If I take the first line of the story and dwell on it a bit further, then I have little optimism for Poland in the coming years. Not unlike in many other nations of the region, its politics is very much a function of an acute generational and value conflict. It reflects a struggle between the conservative, nationalist, clerical (some say even paranoid), anti-communist traditionalism, epitomised by the late President Kaczyński and his twin brother Jarosław, and the liberal, pragmatic, modernizing, post-communist (some say corrupt) reformism, represented by politicians such as Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister. Despite the overwhelming signs of national unity in the face of this tragedy, I doubt this cleavage, which is a cause of so much mutual distrust, contempt and vicious infighting in Polish politics, will disappear. If anything, it may become exacerbated: the Poland which is wedded to the past and focussed on its grievances and historical injustices will probably draw upon the symbolism of the Second Katyń to mute the Poland which yearns for modernity as a way to unleash its full dynamism and potential as a regional power. The infighting will continue, only perhaps in a more polite and civil manner.
In a way, victims of the crash are victims of that infighting: President Kaczyński and PM Tusk crossed their swords many times over who is more important in Polish foreign policymaking (recall all those EU meetings where they appeared both, with one even managing to fetch the very same governmental plane from under the nose of another). It was Mr Tusk who got the upper hand when Russia invited him to the official commemoration in Katyń on April 7th, thus capturing all limelight of “restarting” relations with Russia to himself and leaving President Kaczyński scrambling for his own symbolic event on the very same spot a few days later. And it was Mr Tusk’s government which cancelled acquisition of a new governmental aircraft, initiated earlier by the government of Jarosław Kaczyński, arguing that a lean modern government should charter aircraft on ad hoc basis rather than carry the costs of maintaining the governmental fleet.
Which leads to my second point about the “disaster waiting to happen”. The fleet of old soviet Jakovlevs, Tupolevs and Mi helicopters, operated by a special wing of the Polish Air Force, is a relic of the old times, both in terms of the equipment and in terms of the way to handle VIP airlift by a mid-sized country such as Poland. How dangerous this equipment might be was amply demonstrated by a crash of a Mi-8 helicopter several years ago, carrying the PM of the time, Leszek Miller. The PM, luckily, got away with minor injuries. But the government and the air force did not learn from this experience and continued operating an obviously dangerous fleet – with a fatal outcome. And this also regardless of the fact that the Polish state can hardly afford it in the first place. Thus it demonstrated very well that doing away with legacy systems, be it a piece of equipment or an (prestigious) organisational unit such as the special air transport wing in the air force, is enormously difficult. Especially when we are talking about organisations as inert as the military and when it becomes a subject of political infighting.
But it is alleged that the plane was perfectly airworthy, well-maintained and after a fresh and thorough overhaul. This brings me to the third point of ethos and risk management. If media speculations are right, commanding officer of the aircraft was under enormous pressure to land despite all odds. First, President Kaczyński already had a record of threatening to discipline air force pilots, who refused to land in Tbilisi in 2008 in bad weather conditions. He or any of the generals on board may not have necessarily leaned on the pilots directly this time around, but the commanding officer should have known this backdrop very well. Second, if the late president did actually intervene, this is because his character and views would have certainly led him to conclude that air traffic control order to divert was a Russian political plot to deny him the opportunity to visit Katyń. And the pilots surely were aware of the symbolic importance of the moment. Add to this probable political interference (direct or indirect) the traditional Polish officer honour as well as pressure of implicit expectation that “best of the best”, piloting the Air Force One, should be able to handle such a nuisance as bad weather with ease, and you have a lethal mix of human factors.
The point is that, in Western tradition and according to usual safety protocols, commander of a ship or aircraft is God, regardless of whoever his/her passengers are. Safety of passengers and crew is a paramount and utmost consideration. The rest is irrelevant. But, being somewhat familiar with the hierarchical and deferent nature of relations in the Polish state, society and the armed forces, I would not hesitate to argue that this view was not valid on board of the Polish Air Force One. The President, the Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Force, who were all on board, still remained superior to the commander of the aircraft. Politics and organisational culture, in all likelihood, trumped the argument of safety, the principle of commander’s responsibility and a prudent risk assessment. This is quite symptomatic of the entire Polish, and indeed much of Central and Eastern (or post-Soviet /post-communist), military ethos.
Sadly, the entire Polish high command – people who usually preserve and perpetuate a specific military ethos across military organisations – has perished (by the way, it is quite unprecedented, even for a nation at war, to have its all high command decapitated in a single catastrophic event, which is another lesson in sensible risk management, only this time related to government continuity assurance). They will not be able to think through and make appropriate changes in military procedures and organisational culture, as well as in their interactions with the political world. But will the Polish society, political establishment and the new military command learn the right lessons from this disaster? Only life will tell. For now, we have to pay respect to and mourn the deceased.
Our condolences to all the Polish people.
( Originally posted on the ICDS blog:
What will Poland learn from the disaster?