- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
“This Is How Putin Kills.” That was the headline emblazoned Monday across the cover of the right-wing Polish magazine wSieci. The cover included two images, one from the crash site in eastern Ukraine of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and one immediately below of a jetliner engulfed in a fireball. A caption for the jetliner picture, all but certainly a digitally altered photograph, implied that it was the Polish government jet that crashed in Smolensk, Russia, on April 10, 2010, with 96 people on board, including the country’s then-president, Lech Kaczynski. That crash is seared in the Polish national memory, and last week’s events in eastern Ukraine are bringing back painful memories of that disaster — and fueling long-standing conspiracy theories blaming Russia for the earlier crash.
Poland’s right-wing media have been quick to point out important parallels between the two crashes, though their causes are very different. Four years ago, Russia refused to return the wreckage of the plane, preferring to keep it in Russian territory instead of returning it to the Polish government. Today, pro-Russian separatists are obstructing an international investigation on the site of MH17’s crash. But while U.S. and Ukrainian officials maintain that Russia armed and trained the rebels who shot down MH17, there’s no evidence suggesting Moscow had any role in the Polish accident.
When the Polish government plane fell in 2010 in Smolensk, Russia, it set off a flurry of conspiracy theories that Moscow, Poland’s historical enemy, had plotted to cause the crash. And after last week’s events in Ukraine, Poland’s right-wing media drew parallels between the two crashes and rekindled conspiracy theories that the Russians were behind the 2010 incident. Indeed, wSieci‘s use of what is in all likelihood a digitally altered photograph of the crash is one indication of the degree to which the incident has become a political tool.
The crash in Smolensk in 2010 is laden with symbolism, and it is perhaps not surprising that it is being trotted out in the aftermath of the MH17 shoot-down. The plane was carrying a group of high-profile passengers — in addition to the president, Polish government and military officials were on board — as part of a government delegation to Katyn, the site of the mass execution of Polish officers by the Soviets during World War II. The massacre at Katyn is a signal event in Polish history, and the airliner’s crash was seen as a cruel reprisal of that tragedy.
Following the crash, images of the wreckage, similar to those of MH17, circulated in the media as Poland entered a state of national mourning. It quickly became one of the country’s most divisive political issues. Though an official investigation found that the crash was an accident caused by the crew’s decision to land the antiquated, Russian-made Tu-154 in poor weather, the political right, led by the deceased president’s twin brother, embarked on a crusade to find those at fault. Over the past four years, politicians and so-called experts have brought to light numerous pieces of “evidence” suggesting that the crash was not a result of the crew’s error, but of deliberate wrongdoing on the part of the Russians or other parties. A prevalent theory suggests that the plane exploded midair, presumably sabotaged by the president’s enemies.
Today, the Polish right is using both crashes — in Smolensk and Ukraine — to promote their anti-Russian beliefs.
The issue of wSieci wrapped in the explosive cover features an interview with Antoni Macierewicz, a right-wing politician notorious for fueling the conspiracy theory. In the interview, titled “Georgia, Smolensk, now Ukraine,” he says, according to the magazine’s website, that the shoot-down of MH17 “is the natural consequence of the impunity that Russia encountered first during its aggression on Georgia and then on April 10, 2010, when those who opposed this aggression — Lech Kaczynski and his associates — died.” The implication is that the 2010 crash was an attack on Kaczynski, who was staunchly anti-Russian and supported Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.
The right-wing Polish media has seized on the fact that there is good reason to believe Russia bears a portion of the blame for the downing of MH17 to vindicate the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the Smolensk crash for so many years. An article on the conservative news portal wPolityce.pl, associated with wSieci, which has a section of its website — “Smolensk,” now shorthand for the event — dedicated to the disaster, listed the similarities and the differences between the two events. The similarities include limited access to the wreckage, the dissemination in Polish media of Russian propaganda (a far-fetched claim), and the “huge likelihood of Russian fault or participation.” The list of differences is a litany of complaints directed at the West. Because MH17 had an international passenger list, the article argues, it grabbed the world’s attention. The Polish tragedy, meanwhile, was written off as an “internal issue in the post-Soviet sphere of influence.” Then, the article claims, Russia was let off without punishment; only now, it argues, does Moscow find itself under a degree of international pressure.
Though he does not accuse the Russians of causing the 2010 crash, Jacek Zakowski, a journalist and liberal commentator, draws a more general comparison between Poland and Holland, which he points out are often confused abroad as similarly sounding. “I don’t envy the Dutch,” he writes in Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent Polish daily newspaper. “The wreck of the B-777 transported them politically 1,500 km to the east. They ran into Russia — like we [did] for centuries — and they found themselves in a very Polish situation.”