Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The October 1973 War: Kissinger in Moscow

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The October 1973 War: Kissinger in Moscow

Article excerpt

THE first word of the Israeli counter-offensive in the Sinai Peninsula began to reach Moscow on Tuesday, 16 October 1973, the day Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin left for Cairo. According to the Soviet Military Intelligence reports and the recordings made by the Soviet satellites, which were submitted to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and some other members of the Politburo, large concentrations of tanks, other mechanized forces, and aircraft had been forming on the Israeli side of the line over the last few days. The spearhead of the Israeli force had driven across the Suez Canal and was attacking Egyptian positions and surface-to-air missile sites on the western bank.

Military experts warned the Kremlin that a successful Israeli offensive could cut off the retreat of the large Egyptian force dug into the eastern side of the Canal and lead to the military and political collapse of Egypt. In addition, intelligence showed that significant US arms shipments were reaching Israel. Another source of information in the Egyptian capital reported to the Kremlin that the Israeli crossing of the Canal had created a situation of near panic among many Egyptian political and military leaders. Some of them, the informant claimed, were considering withdrawing the government to Asyut and organizing popular resistance against the Israeli invaders.

The Soviet media, however, portrayed the situation on the Sinai front and in Egypt differently, referring to, or simply repeating, the Arab version of the story. Only on 18 October did the Soviet newspapers mention that a small group of seven Israeli tanks had "desperately tried" to cross the Canal and that three of them were lost. On 19 October Izvestia announced that "an Israeli regiment penetrated into the Western bank of the Suez Canal and was liquidated."(1) These lies were for the Soviet public, but the Soviet leaders knew the bitter truth. Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat's bravado could not mislead them. Nevertheless, Kosygin's talks in Cairo had proved that an immediate cease-fire with the cooperation of Sadat was hopeless. That was one reason why the Kremlin's contacts with Washington became more active in those days.

Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko informed the four-man task force, set up in the Foreign Ministry at the beginning of the war, that Brezhnev had decided to address US president Richard Nixon and express to him the Soviet leadership's comprehensive assessment of the situation in the Middle East. Brezhnev did not want the message to be confrontational, though he did want it to be convincing. A draft was drawn up with the help of Brezhnev's aides, edited by Oromyko, reviewed, and finally cleared by Brezhnev himself, who attached great importance to it.

Although US secretary of state Henry Kissinger characterized the message as "conventional rhetoric,"(2) it seems that it precisely and accurately reflected the way the Soviet leadership perceived the 1973 October War and the Middle East situation and its eventual settlement. Many of the assertions in that message proved to be correct in the years after the war. For this reason, the full text of the message deserves to be quoted. On 16 October, Brezhnev wrote to Nixon:

The current developments in the Middle East are to some extent a test of both our powers to strictly comply with the course we have accepted in our [bilateral] relations and in international affairs.

The situation is undoubtedly complicated. This is clear to us, as well as to you. Let us be straightforward: The United States and the Soviet Union are strongly engaged with Israel and Arab states, respectively.

The trouble is, however, not only, and, perhaps, not insomuch that we maintain a different position on the Middle East issue. The main problem here is that we assess the situation in the Middle East differently. The Soviet leadership continuously, including quite recently, has drawn the Resident's attention to the dangerous situation, which threatened a new explosion at any moment. …

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