The Polish President’s plane just crashed on landing at the Smolensk airport. Polish President Kaczynski, the Army chief of staff as well as the foreign minister were all aboard, and all are reported dead.
Plane crashes happen. However, it is not very often that a plane carrying such significant national officials involved in extremely sensitive position negotiations crashes in the country it feels the most threatened by. Specifically, the three top officials most deeply involved in Poland’s US-Russia regional tug-of-war were just wiped out. These three had pushed a heavily anti-Russian, pro-US policy and had the biggest stake in how the US’s East European stationing plans (the root issue underlying the BMD, Patriot, X-band radar station, etc. negotiations) work out. Poland knows Russia is pushing hard to recover its post-Cold War losses and regain its old Soviet sphere of influence, and Poland knows it is one of Moscow’s prime targets for acquisition for a variety of deep reasons.
Despite a recent warming in Polish-Russian relations, the calculus has always remained the same. The recent “warming” has really amounted to nothing more than a change in atmospherics, but the now friendlier-feeling negotiations have continued to cover the same sticking points. With that in mind, this plane crash presents Russia with some big opportunities. Now Russia can get to work on shaping the next Polish government in pro-Russian way, if the Poles will have it.
It will be interesting to see how the Poles take this plane crash. The fact is the Russians certainly aren’t saddened by it and it opens a lot of doors for them. Undoubtedly many will accuse the Russians of having arranged the plane crash as a FSB or GRU operation, something neither agency is morally above or incapable of pulling off. Suspicion of foul play will be incredibly difficult to wash out, particularly in the Polish (and likely general East European) press.
After all, the Russians did:
- try to kill Yushchenko with poison when he was running for president in Ukraine on an anti-Russia, pro-West platform
- invade Georgia to prove a point about Russian resurgence and
- rid themselves of a problematic former intelligence agent by poisoning him in London
Because this suspicion is going to be impossible to overcome the Russians best course of action is to claim credit for the crash in subtle ways whether they were actually behind it or not. This is exactly what Russia seems to be doing.
To this end it is very interesting that Russian President Medvedev has appointed the Prime Minister, Vladmir Putin, as the head of the commission investigating the crash. From an outsider’s perspective it can easily be taken as a sign that Russia is extremely concerned with the crash and that they are so serious about getting to the bottom of it they are calling on Putin Himself to check things out. From an insider’s perspective, however, this puts the very man whose plan stands to gain the most from the crash in charge of writing the story of how it occurred.
An additional Russian move which appears outwardly innocent but highly suspicious to insiders is the somewhat as-yet undefined involvement of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM). Sergei Shoygu, the head of this ministry, was personally dispatched to the site immediately after the crash. EMERCOM outwardly acts as the Russian equivalent to the American FEMA, but in actuality its tasking is far different. EMERCOM is a GRU (the Russian military intelligence agency, a rival agency to the FSB) agency. In fact, Sergei Shoygu currently holds the rank of General of the Army. His ministry’s true purpose is to use the political opening provided by regional disasters to set up intelligence shops anywhere bad things happen. It is an excellent cover for action and GRU is an increasingly well-run agency.
The lack of FSB involvement is also telling. The Sechin faction of Moscow to which the FSB side of the intelligence/security community belongs is on the losing side of the current Moscow internal power struggle, whereas the GRU is aligned with the winning faction controlled by Surkov. This lack of FSB involvement may be representative of a decline in its influence and a signal of more things to come. It may be interesting to keep a sharp eye on the GRU and EMERCOM over the next few months and see what comes of its current initiatives in Mexico, Haiti, Moldova, Africa, etc.