Saturday, April 10, 2010

Russia Stands to Gain From Polish Air Crash

The first thought that ran through my mind when I read about the plane crash in Russia which claimed the lives of 97 people including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife as well as prominent members of Poland's political, military and religious establishment was how Russia stands to gain from a now destablized Poland.

Now I am not claiming Russia was involved in any kind of foul play. It is quite possible this crash was as a result of pilot error as the plane had encountered thick fog.

Yet it is worth noting that Kaczynski and his fellow passengers were en route to commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre in which nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered by Soviet NKVD (the forerunner to the KGB). I am sure it's something Russians don't like being reminded about.

When Poland signed an agreement with the Bush Administration in August 2008 to build a missile defense shield on Polish soil the Russians went, well, ballistic. General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the Russian armed forces' deputy chief of staff, said that by agreeing to host the shield was "exposing itself to a strike -100 per cent." General Nogovitsyn meant a nuclear strike.

Well, as we all know, President Obama pushed the reset button and cancelled the missile shield program much to the delight of the Russians and much to the dismay of Poland.

Tensions between Russia and Poland have arisen in recent years due to, amongst other things, Polish plans to remove Soviet memorials comemorating the actions of the Red Army during WWII.

However, to be fair, only three days ago Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk appeared with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Katyn memorial at the request of Putin. On the other hand, Putin did not extend an invitation to President Kaczynski nor did Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:

Kaczynski said he would be going to Katyn anyway.

'I am happy that the premier will be (in Katyn),' Kaczynski said in February. 'But the highest representative of the Republic of Poland is the president and I will be (in Katyn) also.'

'I hope I get a visa,' he added.

Kaczynski later announced he would be leading a ceremony in the Katyn forest on April 10, along with veterans organizations and some 300 family members of Katyn victims.

Kaczynski said he was not going to Katyn to 'inflame relations with Russia,' but instead to pay tribute to the victims, reported the Polish Press Agency.

A special train has been set up to take some 400 people to the ceremony, including the families of victims, scouts, volunteers and Polish soldiers. The ceremony is to include a holy mass and a speech by Kaczynski.

Kaczynski was up for re-election this fall. However, due to his death, the elections have to be moved up and can be held no later than June 20th. Kaczynski was staunchly anti-Communist and unabashedly pro-American. Clearly, there was no love lost between Kaczynski and the Russians. You can't tell me the Russians aren't delighted he is out of the picture.

Yes, I am aware that Putin is personally heading up the investigation into the crash. Yet I can't see Putin concluding anything other than pilot error. I think he wants to give the appearance of being a friend to Poland while working behind the scenes to ensure to increase Russian influence there.

Now I'm sure many in Poland will not welcome Putin's involvement in the investigation and there will be strong anti-Russian sentiment expressed during the elections which could manifest into outbreaks of violence against Russians living in Poland as was the case when the teenaged children of Russian diplomats were attacked in July 2005.

It would come as no surprise if Poland elected an even more anti-Russian President than Kaczynski. Let's suppose that President were to embark on a program of removing Soviet era memorials and other acts the Russians considered unfriendly. In which case the Russians would cut oil and gas supplies to Poland as they have in the past. But if Poland were to retaliate in some manner it is not inconceivable to me that Russia would view it as an act of provocation and do to Poland what it did to Georgia in 2008. Who is going to stop Russia from invading Poland if it wanted to do so? President Obama? Why that would be meddling.

The bottom line is that even if today's plane crash was as a result of pilot error it opens up an opportunity for Russia, by hook or by crook, to have the void filled by an administration friendlier to Moscow.

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