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The Smolensk Tragedy in Transatlantic Relations

For eleven years now the Polish people all over the world have been struggling with the aftermath of the crash of the Polish Air Force One in Smolensk, Russia, that claimed the life of the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski, the top leadership of Poland, and families of the Katyn victims. On April 10, 2010, all 96 people on board perished in that disaster. There were no survivors. Eleven years later, the Polish investigation into this crash remains open.

The Presidency of Lech Kaczyński came at a very difficult period in international relations, the period of a rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the world, the time in which the dominant role of the USA resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union was waning down and new powers such as China, India, Brazil, Iran, and Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, aimed at claiming the status of world powers. A major shift in the international balance of power from unipolar to multipolar began to emerge.

In August 2008, Poland signed an agreement with the Republican administration of President George Bush on the construction of elements of the Anti-Missile Defense Shield in Poland. This project was of key importance to Poland’s security. Just five months later, in January 2009, there was a fundamental shift in US foreign policy towards Russia as a result of the 2008 presidential elections and the democratic administration under President Barak Obama coming to power in Washington. The change in US foreign policy towards Russia had major negative consequences for Poland’s security.

Already in February 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced a ‘reset’ policy in relations with the Russian Federation. According to the reset plan, at the NATO summit in Strasbourg in April 2009, steps were taken to renegotiate the Anti-Missile Defense Shield Agreement with Poland. On September 17, 2009 – the most symbolic day for Poland that marked the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, President Obama announced that the US was withdrawing from the agreement to build an anti-missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. This decision constituted a serious blow to Poland’s strategic defense plans and put President Lech Kaczyński, who advocated for this project, in a politically difficult position.

In September 2009, after the announcement of the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Missile Defense Shield agreement, President Kaczyński talked with President Obama at the UN General Assembly Session in New York about alternative forms of ensuring the security of Poland. As a result of Polish efforts, in January 2010 the deployment of American Patriot missiles in Morąg was announced, and in February 2010, the SOFA Agreement on American Patriot bases in Poland was signed.


Thus, the Presidency of Lech Kaczyński (2005-2010) coincided with a fundamental shift in the US policy towards Russia. During the Republican Administration of President Bush (2001-2009), US-Russia relations were marked by many tensions related to the Balkan crisis and the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. The administration of President Bush Jr. implemented a clear policy of supporting the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which resulted, inter alia, in the signing in August 2008 of an agreement on the installation of the American anti-missile defense shield in Poland.

The opening of the door to NATO for Georgia and Ukraine announced at the Bucharest summit in April 2008 is one of the most significant decisions of the Bush administration. The declaration on Georgia and Ukraine issued by the heads of state of NATO members in Bucharest on April 3, 2008, read: “We have agreed today that these countries will become NATO members.”[1]

The Bucharest Declaration was a victory of President Lech Kaczyński, who worked hard for this outcome. He negotiated hard with German Chancellor Merkel to get her approval. Ultimately, he obtained the backing of Chancellor Merkel to support Georgia and Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.  From a historical perspective, these decisions taken at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest have gained particular significance.


The Russian aggression against Georgia in early August 2008 was the first noticeable harbinger of Russia’s determination to regain lost influence in countries controlled by the former Soviet Union. This action caused a strong reaction from the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, who went to Tbilisi together with the Presidents of the Baltic Republics and representatives of the European Union in order to stop the Russian invasion of Georgia. At the rally in Tbilisi on August 13, 2008, President Lech Kaczyński delivered the historic speech:

When I organized this visit, some thought that presidents would be afraid. Nobody was    afraid. They all came because Central Europe has courageous leaders. And I would like to say this not only to you, I would like to say this also to those from our common European Union, that Central Europe, Georgia, that our entire region will matter, that we are independent sovereign states. Ee also know very well that today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine,   next the Baltic States, and then maybe the time will come for my country, for Poland!

We were deeply convinced that membership in NATO and the EU would end Russian appetites. It turned out that we were mistaken. But we can oppose it if the values on which Europe  is to be based are of any importance in practice. If these values are to matter, then we must be here, all of Europe should be here.[2]

Both President Kaczyński’s visit to Georgia and his decisive speech at the Tbilisi rally were interpreted in Poland and in some Western media as provocative towards Russia while Russian media called this speech “rowdy.”

As a result of the Russian aggression, Georgia withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States and filed a complaint against Russia with the International Court of Justice on the instigation of ethnic tensions and separatist movements in Abhazia and Ossetia. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a statement urging Russia to halt air and missile attacks on Georgia, called on Russia to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and withdraw the Russian army from Georgia.[3]


Russia’s aggression against Georgia significantly accelerated Poland’s negotiations with the United States on the defense system for the anti-missile shield in Poland. On August 14, 2008, Poland and the US signed a preliminary agreement on the construction of an anti-missile defense system in Poland.

Shortly thereafter, on August 20, 2008, in Warsaw, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski and the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a joint Declaration on Strategic Cooperation that included the construction of elements of the American anti-missile defense system in Poland. The declaration provided for the signing of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMD) Framework Agreement that would enable both parties to identify opportunities for research collaboration, development and testing of new technologies, and industrial collaboration related to the development of the missile defense system.

The United States has signed such bilateral framework agreements with a limited number of close allies. The BMD bilateral framework agreement provided for the cooperation between partners in order to place in Poland missile interceptors. On the eve of signing the agreement, President Lech Kaczyński addressed the Polish people:

Tomorrow will be an important day in our history. An agreement will be signed between the government of the Republic of Poland and the government of the United States on the installation of elements of the anti-missile defense shield in Poland. The shield, which - it is worth emphasizing - is not an offensive weapon, is to protect us and our allies against a missile attack. The shield, as a purely defensive installation, is not aimed at anyone. Therefore, no one who has good intentions towards us should be afraid of it. Poland takes a sovereign decision in this matter. It has a right to make such a decision as an independent country that decides its own policy. Nobody can dictate to Poland what to do. Those times are gone.

And each of the neighbors must live today with the awareness that our homeland cannot be subjugated or intimidated by anyone. The installation of the shield in Poland is not only strengthening our position in the world, showing the important geopolitical role of Poland, but also represents clear evidence of the strengthening of our alliance with the strongest country in the world, the United States of America. This is extremely important because even the last few days show that the United States is able to stand toughly in defense of its allies. That is why I was personally very involved in this project from the very beginning. On the one hand, I did everything to convince our people to accept it here in Poland, and on the other hand, to point out to our American friends the need for their significant involvement in the political and military strengthening of our alliance. This is what is happening now...[4]

Next, President Kaczyński commented on the signing of the agreement:

“I am very glad that regardless of the uncertainties that took place we have a good agreement. This is the most important. There were moments of tension – they are behind us. The strategic goal has been achieved.”

US Secretary of State Rice, in turn, said: “It is very important to have friends these days. But still more important – to have friends who share common values and plans. Poland is such a friend of the USA.” In her opinion: “Negotiations have been tough, but never been unfriendly.”  In response, Russia threatened with a nuclear attack on Poland.[5]


Poland’s relations with the United States in the run-up to the Smolensk disaster were heavily conditioned by the relations between the United States and NATO on one hand and Russia on the other hand. The policy of the Republican administration of G. Bush, Jr was aimed at supporting the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as reflected in the adoption of the NATO resolution at the Bucharest summit, opening the door for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and signing an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic on the BMD shield.

In response to the NATO Bucharest summit, Russia immediately took steps to formally recognize the Georgian separatist provinces of Ossetia and Abhazia. These actions significantly increased tensions in the entire region and led to militant separatism and destabilization.

In August 2008, Russia took military action against Georgia. President Lech Kaczyński responded by organizing an immediate visit of the leaders of the European Union countries to the capital of Georgia – Tbilisi. This move stopped the Russian advancements.

In the fall of 2008, presidential elections took place in the United States, and on January 20, 2009, President Barak Obama and his Democratic Party came to power in Washington. Almost immediately in February, Vice President Joe Biden announced a “reset” with Russia.

At that time, the Russian authorities attacked Poland in a way that was of particular significance from the perspective of the Smolensk tragedy. In March 2009, General Sergei Shoigu serving as the Minister for Emergency Situations declared: “Our parliament should introduce responsibility for denying the Soviet victory in the great patriotic war. The leaders of the countries that deny it should be banned from entering Russian soil. Then presidents of certain countries who deny these facts would not be able to visit our country with impunity.” At the same time, Russia is very vocal in opposing the anti-missile defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic.

On April 1, 2009, Presidents Obama and Medvedev met on the eve of the NATO summit in Strasbourg. On April 4, the NATO summit began with a celebration of NATO’s 60th anniversary. On this occasion, the Euro-Atlantic Security Declaration was issued, which called for a strong and close partnership between NATO and Russia based on the principles expressed in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 and the Rome Declaration of 2002. NATO also announced it was ready to work with Russia to tackle the challenges facing both sides.

On the occasion of the summit in Strasbourg, Minister Sikorski declared: “We need Russia to solve European and global problems. Therefore, I think it would be good for Russia to join NATO.” Russia reacted negatively to this proposal. Russia’s representative for cooperation with NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, stated that the great powers do not join coalitions, they form coalitions. Russia considers itself to be such great power.” Rogozin sharply criticized NATO’s role in the Georgian crisis, stating: “We are extremely frustrated and surprised by NATO’s actions in August and September 2008, when our soldiers were killed and we saw only political hypocrisy instead of support. NATO turned out to be the only organization that sided entirely with the aggressor.”

After the negative experiences in connection with the crisis in Georgia, NATO while celebrating its 60th anniversary was determined to rebuild relations with Russia at all costs. The summit in Strasbourg was largely devoted to the preparation of a new concept of collective security that would integrate Russia. This determination of the USA to improve relations with Russia was dictated by the necessity for Russia to participate in solving the American problems with Iran and Afghanistan.

Shortly after the jubilee at the NATO summit, representatives of the Senate Armed Forces Committee of the United States Congress made a working visit to Moscow. Two topics dominated the talks held in the Kremlin: Russia’s assistance in negotiations with Iran and the BMD system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov informed the American delegation that Russia was interested in jointly developing an anti-missile system with the United States, but planning for this system should ‘start from scratch’ and joint analysis of threats, necessary measures, and optimal locations for individual elements of this system should be undertaken. Lavrov responded positively to President Obama’s position that if Iran’s nuclear problem is satisfactorily resolved, there will be less demand for the so-called “third place,” that is the Czech Republic and Poland, for the anti-missile shield. At the same time, Lavrov rejected the “quid pro quo” concept according to which the United States would withdraw from plans to build an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe in exchange for Russia helping to persuade Iran to withdraw from its nuclear weapons development program. Lavrov stressed that each of these issues should be considered separately. Lavrov responded positively to the Obama Administration’s plans to review the US anti-missile defense system, stressing that the new US administration was interested in listening to the arguments and exploring alternatives.[6]

The American delegation responded that it must take into account the commitments that had already been made towards Poland and the Czech Republic in the negotiations involving Russia in the BMD program. The Americans also stated that the planned anti-missile defense system has no impact on the Russian capabilities of the nuclear arsenal. The Russian side did not agree with this argument. Instead, they stressed that it would be difficult for Russia to join the American MD missile defense system for political reasons if important elements of the anti-missile defense shield were to be found in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russia said it was more afraid of a radar station in the Czech Republic than of a missile interceptor center in Poland, as the Czech radar could observe the locations of Russian strategic formations.

After the talks in Moscow, the American delegation went straight to Warsaw in order to assess the Polish position on a possible change in Washington’s plans regarding the anti-missile shield. In Warsaw, talks were held about modification of the anti-missile defense shield and deployment of the Patriot battery.

The first meeting was attended on the Polish side by Sławomir Nowak, Chief of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, Deputy Adviser to the President for Security, and Bronisław Komorowski, Speaker of the Sejm. All of them presented a consistent position of the Polish side. First, the physical presence of US troops in Poland is necessary in order to ensure Poland’s security guarantees under Art. 5 NATO. Second, Poland expects the United States to honor its commitments to Poland to provide Patriot missile batteries. The Americans, in turn, stated that while the form of support for Poland may differ from the previously agreed one under the Barak Obama presidency, the quality of American support will be as significant as before.[7]

The purpose of the meetings of the American delegation in Warsaw was to determine the points at which Poland might be willing to accept changes in the previously established terms of defense cooperation. The Americans argued that if the Czech Republic withdraws from the construction of the radar, the Polish interceptor program would be endangered. They also suggested that Patriot batteries could replace the missile defense shield.

The Polish side strongly counter-argued, pointing out that the Americans were obliged to fulfill the concluded agreements, which have a significant symbolic meaning, as a demonstration of American support for Poland’s defense. It was emphasized that Poland paid a high price for consenting to the construction of the anti-missile shield on its territory, as this decision worsened its relations with certain European Union countries. As a result of this decision, Poland has exposed itself to Iran, has again become the target of attacks from Russia, and representatives of the Kremlin intimidate Poland with a nuclear attack. Moreover, Russia continues to pursue a historical policy hostile to Poland, refuses to recognize the crimes committed against the Polish nation, uses economic blackmail and energy pressures.

The Polish side also strongly emphasized that it expects that the negotiations on the anti-missile shield between the United States and Russia will not take place over the heads of the Poles. The Polish side should be a partner in negotiations on this matter. The United States should make every effort not to harm Poland’s security.

The next day, April 16, 2009, the American delegation met with Radosław Sikorski, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, and informed him that the US was considering the withdrawal from the BMD program. According to the Americans, Minister Sikorski stated that Poland would not suffer from the withdrawal of the US from the anti-missile shield, but would find itself in an awkward international situation. Sikorski did not express any objections to the search for alternative solutions that would satisfy the Russians. Sikorski also mentioned that according to earlier negotiations, it was the Americans who had the obligation to obtain Russian approval for the anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He also stated that Poland was not interested in teasing Russia and was open to building mutual trust measures. However, he stressed that the presence of the United States armed forces in Poland was the key issue for Poland. He pointed to the disproportion in the distribution of NATO infrastructure in Europe and the alarming lack of permanent NATO bases in Poland. Referring to the Patriot batteries, he pointed out that only real Patriot batteries do count, not those for training purposes. He recalled that Poland was promised Patriot batteries, which are currently in Germany. “We want to be treated like any other NATO member state. We are not interested in being a second-class member,” Sikorski said.[8]

In July 2009, President Obama paid his first visit to the Kremlin. The meeting took place a year after the Georgian crisis in an atmosphere of great expectations that relations with Moscow will improve under the new administration of the White House. President Obama quickly developed a good relationship with his counterpart, President Medvedev. Both leaders declared reconciliation.

In his speech in Moscow, President Obama said:

"There is a view that goes back to the twentieth century that Russia and America are destined to be in antagonistic relations, and that a strong America and a strong Russia can emphasize their power only in the context of mutual relations. There is also the nineteenth-century view that both our countries must strive for spheres of influence and that the powers must build competing blocs to balance each other's forces. Such assumptions are wrong. In 2009, the great powers did not demonstrate power by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when powers could treat sovereign states as pawns on a chessboard are over."[9]

Obama’s speech was positively received only in certain Russian political circles. Many Kremlin politicians did not share President Obama’s position that the era of imperial rivalry was over. President Obama also met with V. Putin, then Prime Minister. After this meeting, Obama said: “Some of his grievances against the West still lie in suspicions stemming from that [old] system. In my opinion, he is a tough, intelligent, smart man, completely devoid of sentiments, very pragmatic. On matters where we disagree, such as Georgia, for example, I do not expect a quick agreement.”[10]


Shortly after President Obama’s visit to Moscow, a group of leaders of Central and Eastern European countries concerned about the drastic change in the course of US policy towards the entire region sent an open letter to President Obama. Dated July 16, 2009, the letter of 22 Central and Eastern European leaders was written in the context of Russia’s increasing aggression against the entire region and in response to information that President Obama’s new administration is thoroughly reviewing the entire Central and Eastern European anti-missile defense program previously agreed and approved by the Republican administration of President Bush. The signatories of the letter warned against resurgent Russian imperialism, which again threatens the security of the entire region and the world. The Appeal reads:

Our hopes that relations will improve and that Moscow will finally accept our total sovereignty and join NATO and the EU have not materialized. Instead, Russia is once again a revisionist force. To expand its interests in Central Europe and threaten its Atlantic orientation, Russia uses open and secret means of economic warfare.[11]

The appeal was signed by representatives of 9 countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. On behalf of Poland, the Appeal was signed by: Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, and Lech Wałęsa. The signatories of the open letter referred to the problem of missile defense in Central and Eastern Europe as follows:

The most painful problem concerns the planned US installations of a defense shield ... Regardless of the assessment of the military usefulness of these installations and what Washington may decide on this matter, the topic itself has become, at least in some countries, a symbol of American credibility and interest in our region. The way in which this problem is solved will have a significant impact on the attitude of the countries of our region towards future trans-Atlantic cooperation. The small number of missiles envisaged in this program cannot pose any threat to Russia, and the Kremlin is well aware of this… As allies, we should not allow this problem to be determined by Russia's unfounded opposition on this issue. Eliminating this program or inviting Russia to cooperate closely without consulting Poland and the Czech Republic may undermine the credibility of the United States in the entire region.[12]

The open letter of Central and Eastern European leaders was not well received by the Obama administration. It was treated as a violation of the rules of diplomacy and an expression of the disloyalty of close allies who publicly voiced their fears that they would be sold to Russia. It may also have contributed to the selection of September 17, 2009, for the announcement of the US decision to withdraw from the BMD agreement with Poland.[13]

The New York Times (NYT), supporting President Obama, recalled that Obama in his Moscow speech stressed that states have the right to ensure the security of their borders and to conduct their own foreign policy. However, even the NYT saw a fundamental problem with the reset strategy. Quoting the signatories of the letter expressing the hope that the US would follow a moral compass and not leave Central and Eastern Europe, the NYT was critical of the Obama administration’s ignoring the costs of the Cold War and the victory of Central and Eastern Europe over the Soviet Union under American leadership. The NYT warned against compromise at the cost of democracy, stressing that if America did not speak assertively about its victory, then the will to defend this victory would also be weakened. The NYT noted that Obama in Moscow was not addressing the success of America’s two-generation policy towards Central and Eastern Europe and its obligation to defend that victory. He stressed that the omission of the moral victory of freedom and democracy over the tyranny of the murderous regime left a bitter taste of the alleged moral equality of the parties to this conflict.[14]

Addressing President Obama, the leaders of the Central and Eastern European countries expressed their fears of Russia’s growing aggression and their hope that America would not leave Central and Eastern Europe. These were important words. In implementing the reset policy with Russia, the West has repeatedly ignored any sensitive or inconvenient matters in relations with Russia, including topics related to the victims of the Soviet system of oppression, the costs of the Cold War, and the victory of Central and Eastern Europe over the Soviet Union under American leadership. Such a state of ambivalence towards Russia means that the Soviet Union is not perceived as a criminal of the rank of Nazi Germany, which strengthens Russian info-aggression.


On the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, at the ceremony at Westerplatte in Gdansk attended, among others, by leaders of Poland, Russia, and Germany, President Lech Kaczyński said:

Westerplatte is a symbol of heroic resistance against a stronger adversary. (…)

Munich is a pact that requires reflection. Between disgrace and honor, disgrace was chosen but war was not averted nonetheless. Not always, as in the case of Munich, [appeasement] gives such quick and tragic results. But with time, such results always come. It is a great lesson for all of modern Europe, for the whole world. (...)

We shall stand up against imperialism, and even against neo-imperial inclinations.

Katyn was the effect of revenge for 1920 [victory], for Poland's repulsion from aggression. You could say – it is communism. No, in this case, it is chauvinism and not communism. We, Poles, have the right to the truth about tragic events that befell our nation and we will never give it up. I strongly believe that all of Europe is moving in this direction, towards pluralism, freedom, democracy, and truth.[15]

In his speech at Westerplatte, Prime Minister Putin condemned Nazi extremists and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact on behalf of the Russian Federation but alluded that Poland was also to blame because it had collaborated with the fascists.

These celebrations were summarized by the British “The Times” as follows: “Poles who expected Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to be honest instead heard historical relativism.” The Austrian “Der Standard” made a similar observation. “The Poles deserve an apology from Russia because no other country suffered more in this war than Poland,” wrote, in turn, a commentator from the British Daily Telegraph. “Moscow is unable to acknowledge its historical responsibility for the events of 1939. So it is not surprising that Putin’s policy outrages the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe. Russia should start to reconcile with its neighbors, as France and Germany did,” argues the Spanish “El Pais.” The American media published only reports from the celebration. The New York Times also noted Polish discontent with the absence of President Obama at this important commemoration at Westerplatte.


Shortly thereafter, on the symbolic date of September 17, 2009, exactly on the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet aggression on Poland, American President Obama announced that the United States would withdraw from the program of building the anti-missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic agreed upon by the George Bush administration. Obama said he would continue “working with close allies, the Czech Republic and Poland, who agreed to install elements from the previous program. I spoke with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Poland about this decision and I assured them of our deep and close relationship… At the same time, we assured Russia that their concerns about the previous program were completely unfounded.”[16]

Thus on the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland, President Obama withdrew from the agreements concluded with Poland on 10 anti-missile interceptor bases and ordered the preparation of a reconfigured defense system aimed at shooting down short and medium-range missiles from Iran. He also announced placing the smaller SM-3 interceptors first on ships and then in Europe, maybe also in the Czech Republic and Poland, calling this new program the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).

US Defense Minister Robert Gates said that the new plan still provides for the deployment of defense systems in Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries in the region, but the details of this plan will be further elaborated. He also claimed that “this new approach provides a better anti-missile defense to our troops in Europe, our European allies, and, consequently, our homeland than the program I recommended three years ago.”

As part of the reconfiguration of the original defense concept, on February 7, 2010, President Kaczyński signed a long-awaited agreement with the United States allowing US troops and Patriot bases to be stationed on Polish territory. This agreement enabled the establishment of the US Patriot air defense missile base in Poland.[17]

Obama’s decision to withdraw from the planned anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe has received a positive response from Russia. On September 19, Deputy Minister of Defense, Vladimir Popovkin, announced that in reaction Moscow would withdraw from deploying Iskanders in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The Kremlin also started signaling the rapprochement of the positions of the two powers on the issue of Iran. On September 23, Medvedev said after a meeting with Obama in New York, that Moscow may support international sanctions against Iran if the proposals for dialogue on the country’s nuclear program remain unanswered. On November 15, Obama and Medvedev met in Singapore and emphatically warned that due to Tehran’s passivity, there was less and less time for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program. Russia finally agreed to impose the fourth series of sanctions on Iran by the UN Security Council in June 2010, three months after the Smolensk Tragedy.[18]

However, after getting acquainted with the new version of the anti-missile defense system, Russia returned to its fears. The new version of the anti-missile shield proposed by Obama in military terms was considered beneficial for Poland as it was supposed to defend American bases and soldiers in Europe, and also all members. Contrary to the original project, which provided for the anti-missile launch base in Redzikowo, aimed at defending the territory of the United States, the new system was, according to the Russians, an important defense value in relations with Russia.[19]


Autumn 2009 was marked by great tension in relations among Russia, Poland, Germany and the USA. The echoes of the anti-Polish uproar on the anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, when the Russian intelligence published a book proving – against the facts – that Poland was Hitler’s ally, have not yet subsided. Shortly thereafter, Vladimir Putin gave a controversial speech in Gdańsk on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, in which he did not apologize to Poland for the 1939 aggression and the Katyn genocide. In mid-September, Russia conducted Zapad 2009 military maneuvers in Belarus, the largest military maneuvers since the fall of the USSR. In the middle of these threats, on September 17, 2009, that marked the 70th anniversary of the Soviet aggression on Poland, President Obama announced that the US was withdrawing from the key security agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Soon after this announcement, President Kaczyński traveled to New York for the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly. At the annual session of the United Nations, he delivered a speech on the need to reform the Security Council and increase the role of the United Nations in solving problems. At the UN, he also met and talked with President Obama. “I was talking about a certain dissatisfaction on the part of Poland, about the fact that certain matters need to be clarified,” said President Kaczyński after the meeting. He added that President Obama believes it is best to talk about these matters also with Prime Minister Donald Tusk…[20]

At that time, on September 23, 2009, the Polish Seym adopted by acclamation a resolution commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. The resolution emphasized that as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Poland fell victim to the two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As a result of this Pact “the 4th partition of Poland was carried out and Poland was subjected to horrific crimes that constituted the Golgotha of the East.” The Katyn massacre committed against Polish officers/ prisoners-of-war was referenced as a war crime that “bears the hallmarks of genocide.” The Resolution stated that Polish-Russian reconciliation requires respect for the truth.[21]

Russia’s reaction to the Resolution of the Polish Seym was hostile. Vladimir Zhirinovsky called on the Duma to condemn the Resolution. Deputy Chairman of the Duma, Oleg Morozov, commissioned a report and stated that this was like “a dance on the bones” of those Poles who, along with a million others, gave their lives in the fight against “fascism.” In the opinion of the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev, “Russian parliamentarians, regardless of the attitude of their Polish colleagues, should stick to a constructive line.” He stressed that Prime Minister Putin traveled to Poland with such a message. “It is sad to say that this historic gesture of good intentions is not appreciated by many in Poland who prefer to remain silent or just ignored it. This topic should be the subject of the broadest possible discussion among deputies, but it seems doubtful that it would be necessary to answer it in writing,” Kosachev told journalists in the Duma.

Leonid Słucki described the Resolution of the Polish Seym as “unfavorable to dialogue between Russia and Poland” and “pushing back the prospects of normalization of Russian-Polish relations.” In Słucki’s opinion, “Poland is still infected with nationalism. This country has a tendency to present itself as almost the only victim of history,” he said.[22]

The Seym’s resolution was also criticized by the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, who viewed it as a “provocation.” In his opinion, this document may only worsen relations between Russia and Poland. The communist leader announced that “the Kaczynski brothers are jumping out of their pants unnecessarily. They will not be able to rewrite history,” he said on the radio Echo Moskva. According to Zyuganov, the entry of Soviet troops into the (Polish) territory of western Ukraine and western Belarus in September 1939 was absolutely justified. “We occupied lands inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarusians. Poland faithfully conquered these territories. The local population had nothing to do with Poland,” he said. “The (resolution) was adopted to whitewash its own policy, which favored the expansion of Hitler and unleashing a war,” emphasized Zyuganov in a published statement.

During his visit to the USA, President Kaczyński was asked by journalists about Russian critical reactions to the resolution adopted by the Seym concerning the USSR’s aggression against Poland on September 17, 1939. “There is some confusion here, a certain contradiction,” President Kaczynski replied:

“Changing the relationship between Poland and Russia would certainly be useful, but it must be on a certain level. Please remember that these are relations of a special nature, it is not a relationship between two normal countries, but between the countries one of which is much larger and the other much smaller, although neither of them - neither Poland nor Russia are small countries - said Lech Kaczyński. This is - he emphasized - history, history of the 20th century, and history of the 19th century.  In other words, it is baggage and this baggage can be dealt with provided that both parties want to deal with it,” President Kaczyński concluded.[23]


“Zapad 2009” is the code name of joint Belarusian-Russian military maneuvers. Preparations for the maneuvers began on August 16 and the activities began on September 8. Information about the military maneuvers was made public on August 25. At that time, it was also officially announced that one of the goals of this operation was to practice joint repression of an attack on oil and gas pipelines, including the Nordstream pipeline, i.e. the planned Nordstream pipeline, which was to connect Russia directly with Germany over the heard of Poland. A second goal was also announced: to practice the defense of Grodno and Brest against attacks from Poland.[24]

Three things are noteworthy here. Firstly, the exact number of the forces involved in the maneuvers was made public. It was 12,500 soldiers, including 1,800 reservists, 100 planes and helicopters, and about 900 tanks, armored vehicles, and self-propelled guns. Such a huge commitment of the armed forces meant that it was the largest Belarusian-Russian exercise to date. Secondly, the officially disclosed maneuver targets indicated that the Russians were considering the possibility of repelling the attack from Poland. This was a clear breach of diplomatic rules that require no mention of the names of other countries in a negative context. Thirdly, observers from NATO were not invited to the exercises, although their presence was guaranteed by the Alliance’s agreements with Russia.

The head of Polish diplomacy demanded that NATO react decisively to the Zapad 2009 maneuvers. In November, a NATO spokesman criticized Russia for carrying out the exercises without the participation of NATO observers. He also expressed concern about the fact that Russia allowed the possibility of an attack by NATO countries, although this completely contradicted the doctrines and assumptions of today’s Alliance. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, criticized the speech of the NATO spokesman, stating that it was an explosion of negative emotions.[25]

While military exercises were still taking place on the Belarusian training grounds, another conflict began over the supply of Russian gas to Poland. Gazprom presented unfavorable terms to Poland, demanding higher prices for the raw material and the extension of the contract for at least 15 years. They also demanded a clause that would prohibit Poland from reselling any surplus of raw material to third countries. Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak went to Russia and agreed to all Russian conditions, and made an additional concession that the unfavorable contract would remain in force even longer – until 2037.[26]


On April 10, 2010, President Lech Kaczyński together with his wife and the entire official Polish delegation traveling to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn genocide, perished as a result of the catastrophe of the Polish governmental airplane Tu-154 M that disintegrated in the air over Smolensk, near Katyn. In the immediate aftermath of this disaster, the political position of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform Party that stood in opposition to the PIS party of late President Kaczynski gained ground in Poland. The nomination of the Speaker of the Seym, Bronisław Komorowski from Civic Platform as Interim President immediately after the disaster, significantly strengthened Donald Tusk’s political camp and ensured Komorowski’s victory in the upcoming presidential election. In the aftermath of this national tragedy, Russia also strengthened its influence in Poland as a result of the reset policy pursued by Donald Tusk’s government, which was investing heavily in improving relations with Moscow at that time.

The United States did not provide any support to Poland in connection with the Smolensk catastrophe. The US did not give any support to the family of Wojciech Seweryn, a US citizen who perished in Smolensk. The government of Donald Tusk did not ask the United States to assist Poland in investigating the matter, and the administration of President Obama did not take any action in the matter, despite the fact that an American citizen died in this disaster and despite significant efforts of Wojciech Seweryn’s family and Polish Americans asking for such help.

Repeated attempts by the American Polonia to obtain expert assistance from the American National Transportation Safety Board in the investigation of the Smolensk disaster invariably remained unanswered. At the same time, the administration of President Obama informally expressed its conviction that Russia had carried out the attack on the Polish governmental airplane in Smolensk.[27]

From the perspective of Polish domestic politics, the camp associated with Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who fiercely fought against the assertive foreign policy of late President Lech Kaczyński, strengthened its position immediately after the Smolensk disaster, aggressively promoting the pilot error scenario as the cause of the Smolensk disaster with tacit support from the United States.

In the international arena, however, the consequences of the Smolensk disaster were different. Back in 2009, NATO was about to allow Russia to participate in the construction of the new European anti-missile defense system. However, following the Smolensk catastrophe, NATO changed its position on this issue and decided not to allow Russia to participate in this project. In relations with Russia, NATO began to raise the issues of trust, transparency, political predictability, and military credibility. In response, Russia increased pressure on NATO by setting conditions, demanding more rights, and making threats. NATO stiffened. At the Lisbon summit that took place in autumn 2010, several months after the Smolensk disaster, NATO approved the US EPAA missile defense plan and accelerated its implementation.

At the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council that fall, President Medvedev demanded that Russia be included in the construction of the shield as an equal partner and that some NATO territories be limited in defense capabilities. These requests were rejected. At the next NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012, temporary defense capability against the threat of ballistic missiles was announced. The Wales Summit in 2014 resulted in NATO’s approval of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force concept. In the following years, NATO and the US significantly increased NATO’s military presence on its eastern flank and tightened its course towards Russia, but not enough to address the Smolensk Catastrophe in US-Russia relations. The incoming Republican administration of President Donald Trump did not take up this challenge either despite strong pressure from the Polish-American community in the United States.



All centers of power and influence in the United States have been pursuing the policy of promoting the pilot error scenario, preventing any questions, and discrediting dissenting voices. This pressure to accept the Russian version of events came not only from Russia but also from the Polish government of Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform party, from all post-communist forces throughout the West, as well as from the Obama administration committed to pushing the reset policy with Russia. This pressure also came from the national leadership of the Polish American Congress closely working with the US centers of power. The pilot error narrative has been accepted as the only legitimate narrative in all Western mainstream media unfriendly to the late President Lech Kaczynski and his Law and Justice party.

One can only hope that future generations will be able to live and work in conditions free from ideological and political enslavement that will enable them to reach out for the well-documented evidence preserved by brave scientists and build on their legacy in order to bring back from oblivion the truth about the Smolensk catastrophe, tell the world what really happened in Smolensk, defend the fallen Polish President, restore the good name of the Polish generals and pilots killed over Smolensk, and restore some minimum decency in international relations.

According to international law, when there are allegations of serious violations of human rights, which undoubtedly took place in the Smolensk drama, the right to the truth about the causes of this tragedy applies not only to the victims of the crime and their families, but also to victims of similar crimes, and to the public-at-large. We all have the right to know what really happened in Smolensk.

Maria Szonert Binienda
This is an abridged version of the original article that first appeared in “The Role of Polonia in Shaping Polish American Relations in  XX and XXI Century”,  Polskie Towarzystwo Historyczne 2020.


[1] Bucharest Summit Declaration Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Bucharest, 3 April 2008;

[2] S. Pereira, Niezwykle aktualne dziś przemówienie Lecha Kaczyńskiego, „”, 20 luty 2014;

[3]  Rice urges Russia to withdraw troops from Georgia, AFP, Aug. 8, 2008.  J. Nicol, Russia-Georgia Conflict in South Ossetia: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests, CRS Report for Congress, updated October 24, 2008;

[4] Orędzie Prezydenta Lecha Kaczyńskiego, „Gazeta Wyborcza”, 19 sierpnia 2008;,93610,5606839,Oredzie_prezydenta_Lecha_Kaczynskiego.html

[5] Russia threatens nuclear attack on Poland over US missile defense shield deal. “The Telegraph”, August 15, 2008;

[6] FM Lavrov discusses Missile Defense and Iran with Codel Levin, US Embassy in Moscow, April 29, 2009, Wikileaks;

[7] Ambassador V. Ashe, CODEL Levin discusses missile defense in Warsaw, US Embassy in Warsaw Cable, May 7, 2009, Wikileaks,

[8] Polish FM Sikorski to Codel Levin: We want ‘Real’ Patriots, US Embassy in Warsaw Cable, May 7, 2009, Wikileaks;

[9] Remarks by President Obama at the New Economic School Graduation, Moscow, July 7, 2009;; C. Crawford, How Obama and Biden sent Putin Mixed messages, May 9, 2014;

[10] P. Baker, Obama resets ties with Russia but work remains,  “The New York Times”, July 7, 2009;

[11] An Open Letter to Obama Administration from Central & Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 16, 2009;

[12] Ibid.

[13] H. Conley, President Obama Return to Prague: An opportunity to reset, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 5, 2010;

[14] J. Vinocur, Central and Eastern European Countries Issue Rare Warning for U.S. on Russian Policy, “The New York Times”, July 20, 2009;

[15] Przypominamy! Lech Kaczyński w 2009 r. na Westerplatte: ‘Nie wolno ustępować imperializmowi!’ PRZEMÓWIENIE, 1 września 2019 roku, „”;

[16] Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 17, 2009; odkłada tarczę, “”, 17 września 2009;,93610,7048224,Obama_odklada_tarcze.html.

[17] Zgoda Prezydenta na stacjonowanie wojsk USA w Polsce, „wiadomoś”, 26 luty 2010;,zgoda-prezydenta-na-wojska-usa-w-polsce.html Lorenz, Kulisy polsko-amerykańskiej rozgrywki o patrioty, „” 8 grudnia 2010;,25,6874,0,kulisy-polsko-amerykanskiej-rozgrywki-o-patrioty.html

[18] A question arises whether the lack of US reaction to the Smolensk tragedy and the US withdrawal of support for the investigation of this crash was related to the need to secure Russia’s support for sanctions on Iran. 35stan, Senator Carl Levin Polityka resetu USA-Rosja a zamach smoleński, „Salon24”, 14 maja 2014;,senator-carl-levin-polityka-resetu-usa-rosja-a-zamach-smolenski,3

[19] P. Pacuła, Istnieje życie po tarczy, „Bezpieczeństwo Narodowe” Nr. 2010/13, s. 85;,Spolecznosci-muzulmanskie-w-Europie.html

[20] Prezydent: Nie sądzę, żeby moje miejsce tuż obok Baracka Obamy było przypadkiem, „”, 23 września 2009;,858,prezydent-nie-sadze-zeby-moje-miejsce-tuz-obok-baracka-obamy-bylo-przypadkiem.html Prezydent RP Lech Kaczyński rozmawiał z Barackiem Obamą, Biuro Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego,,Prezydent-RP-Lech-Kaczynski-rozmawial-z-Barackiem-Obama.html.

[21] UCHWAŁA Sejmu Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej z dnia 23 września 2009 r. upamiętniająca agresję Związku Radzieckiego na Polskę 17 września 1939 r.

[22] Duma może odpowiedzieć na uchwałę Sejmu dotyczącą 17 września 1939 roku, TVS, 23 września 2009;

[23] Prezydent o reakcjach Rosji na uchwałę Sejmu w sprawie 17 września 1939 roku, „”, 24 września 2009;

[24] Rosja i Białoruś stłumią polskie powstanie w manewrach, TVN24,,2/rosja-i-bialorus-stlumia-polskie-powstanie-w-manewrach,210726.html

[25] A. Dunin, Poland on Edge over Russian Drills, Intel Brief, The International Relations and Security Network, November 18, 2009,; Polska rozstrzęsiona rosyjskimi manewrami, “Stosunki międzynarodowe”,,535,Polska_roztrzesiona_rosyjskimi_manewrami

[26] L. Szymowski, Rozbiór ściśle tajny, Najwyższy Czas nr. 50 (1021), 12 grudzień 2009;

[27] Such position was expressed by the incumbent American Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues on February 4, 2011, i.e. shortly after the publication of the Russian MAK Report on the Smolensk catastrophe that blamed the pilot for the crash.



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