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Putin Sends His Condolences

Why is Putin gushing over Poland's loss? Not because he's suddenly sprouted a heart.

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

No one would mistake Vladimir Putin for a softie. But in the wake of the devastating plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of top Polish officials as they were heading to the site of a Stalin-era massacre in western Russia, the strongman Russian prime minister showed his sensitive side. He hugged his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, respectfully bowed his head as Kaczynski's flag-draped coffin was loaded on a plane to be flown back to Warsaw, and used Clinton-esque language in a televised appeal to the Polish people. "This is a tragedy for us too," Putin said in the message, recorded near the site of Saturday's crash. "We feel your pain."

And that wasn't all. The Russian government -- often derided for its secretive, bungling, bureaucratic ways -- sprang into action conveying its condolences. It declared a national day of mourning (on a day when Russia normally celebrates Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight). It vowed a swift, thorough investigation to be carried out in full transparency with Polish authorities; the black boxes from Kaczysnki's ill-fated presidential plane were opened and decoded in the presence of Polish investigators. Relatives of the victims were allowed into Russia with minimal hassle, and state-owned TV channels closely followed the global outpouring of grief over Kaczynski's death, even though just a few days earlier, they had regularly criticized his staunchly pro-Western policies. "Today is a day of mourning in Russia. Russians are grieving together with Poles," a somber anchorman on state-owned Rossiya television declared on Monday.

Russia's never been known for its smooth diplomacy, or its empathy. So what was going on?

No one would mistake Vladimir Putin for a softie. But in the wake of the devastating plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of top Polish officials as they were heading to the site of a Stalin-era massacre in western Russia, the strongman Russian prime minister showed his sensitive side. He hugged his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, respectfully bowed his head as Kaczynski’s flag-draped coffin was loaded on a plane to be flown back to Warsaw, and used Clinton-esque language in a televised appeal to the Polish people. "This is a tragedy for us too," Putin said in the message, recorded near the site of Saturday’s crash. "We feel your pain."

And that wasn’t all. The Russian government — often derided for its secretive, bungling, bureaucratic ways — sprang into action conveying its condolences. It declared a national day of mourning (on a day when Russia normally celebrates Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight). It vowed a swift, thorough investigation to be carried out in full transparency with Polish authorities; the black boxes from Kaczysnki’s ill-fated presidential plane were opened and decoded in the presence of Polish investigators. Relatives of the victims were allowed into Russia with minimal hassle, and state-owned TV channels closely followed the global outpouring of grief over Kaczynski’s death, even though just a few days earlier, they had regularly criticized his staunchly pro-Western policies. "Today is a day of mourning in Russia. Russians are grieving together with Poles," a somber anchorman on state-owned Rossiya television declared on Monday.

Russia’s never been known for its smooth diplomacy, or its empathy. So what was going on?

Kremlin-watchers say Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were determined to quash speculation that Russia was responsible for the disaster. "This was a natural PR move, designed to neutralize any possible speculation about this very delicate and tragic event," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.

The matter is especially sensitive because the crash that killed Kaczynski took place as he was about to mark the 70th anniversary of a grim event that continues to poison Russian-Polish relations: the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, Stalin’s effort to decapitate the Polish leadership during the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland.

In a sad irony, Saturday’s crash also decapitated Poland’s leadership: the country’s top military commanders, central bank chief, and dozens of other officials were among the 96 victims of the disaster, which occurred en route to Katyn Forest, scene of one of the worst killings in 1940.

"Katyn is a mystical place. It seems that the evil there draws more evil," said Alexander Konovalov, head of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, a Moscow-based think tank. And that’s why Moscow needs to tread especially carefully, he added. "There are idiots on both sides who will say this was not an accident. The best way to counter this is to conduct a completely transparent investigation."

Had there been any hint that Russians were to blame — mistakes by the air traffic controllers or technical faults in Kaczynski’s Russian-built Tupolev Tu-154 plane — the echoes between 1940 and 2010 would have hardened anti-Moscow feelings in Poland and derailed a recent warming trend between the two countries.

After years of squabbling, Russia and Poland seemed to be on the verge of reconciliation just before this weekend’s plane crash. In the years when Poland was headed by the Kaczynski brothers — Lech, the president, and his identical twin Jaroslaw, then prime minister — the two countries regularly had heated exchanges over issues ranging from NATO expansion to U.S. missile defense to the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which Russia wants to build beneath the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and other troublesome transit countries. Russian-Polish relations started to warm when Tusk, a pragmatic liberal, replaced Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister. Things were going so well that Putin and Tusk took part in an unprecedented joint memorial ceremony at Katyn last week, just a few days before Saturday’s plane crash.

Political analysts say Russia is eager to keep that love-fest going, because Poland, the largest of the former Communist satellite states, is a major influence in the European Union and helps set the agenda in EU-Russian relations. And given that the EU is a key trade partner and the main consumer of Russian natural gas, friendly ties with Warsaw may help ensure billions of dollars’ worth of gas revenues for years to come. "Poland carries a lot of weight in the EU and NATO," said Volk. "Undoubtedly, Poland’s economic and political influence means that Moscow has to take it into account when developing its relations with other countries."

Russia’s reaction to the plane crash that killed Lech Kaczynski could be a major boost to reconciliation efforts with Poland — or, depending what investigators turn up, it could plunge Moscow and Warsaw back to the days of bitter backbiting. "Barring anything that would lead the Poles to blame the Russians, I think it will probably have a limited impact in somewhat improving Russian-Polish relations," said Anatol Lieven, a professor and Eastern Europe scholar at King’s College London. "I say ‘limited’ because we are, after all, dealing with a pretty grim history, dating back 500 years or so."

Alexander Osipovich is a reporter at the Moscow Times.

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