240. Memorandum From the Acting Chairman of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Board of National Estimates (Smith) to Director of Central Intelligence Helms 1


Note: It should be emphasized that this memorandum deals primarily with the immediate and short-term Soviet reactions to the current situation. Further, at the moment of writing, it is still quite unclear who is in control in Cairo, and the outcome of this situation will obviously affect Soviet policies.

We do not believe that the Soviets planned or initiated the Middle Eastern crisis. The Israeli-Arab war and, more specifically, the defeat of the UAR in that war, were developments which the USSR did not desire, initially did not foresee and, later, could not forestall. But it is clear that the Soviets were actively involved in the crisis from mid-May on.
Soviet propaganda support of the Arabs became strident and specifically accused Israel of planning to attack Syria. More important, the Soviets privately warned the Egyptians (and probably the Syrians as well) that they had learned Israel was preparing some sort of military action against Syria sometime between 17 and 21 May. The Soviets also advised both the Egyptians and Syrians to remain calm and not to provoke Israel militarily, but the effect of Moscow’s private and public statements was to heighten Arab fears and passions, already greatly aroused by Israeli acts and statements and by Syrian cries of alarm. The Soviets probably expected to benefit from heightening of tensions. They probably estimated during the early stages of the crisis that a resort to violence by either side could, and probably would, be avoided.
We believe that Nasser’s decision to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba (announced on 23 May) was made without Soviet counsel and that the Soviets received little or no advance warning of it. The evidence on this matter is fairly skimpy. A variety of Soviet sources have informed us that Moscow had no foreknowledge of the move; the Soviets displayed some uncertainty as to how best to handle the issue; and they carefully avoided any subsequent sanctioning of Nasser’s move to close the Gulf [Page 404] (though they did say that the entrance to the Gulf was in Egyptian territorial waters, as they had 10 years before). But our belief that the Soviets did not approve the Gulf closure rests partly on our judgment that the Soviets were well aware that this one move could provoke an Arab-Israel war.
Clearly they miscalculated the course of events. Nasser moved faster and further than they anticipated. The Israelis did go to war and inflicted on the Arabs a defeat far more rapid and complete than the USSR could have expected.
Soviet policy since the outbreak of the war has rested essentially, we think, on several considerations: the USSR’s concern to avoid direct involvement in the war and to escape the risk of a direct confrontation with the US; its desire to preserve as many of the gains of the prewar crisis (both Soviet and Arab) as possible through diplomatic and propaganda means; its devout wish to avoid the stigma which would attach to Moscow if the Arabs suffered a complete defeat and the Soviets did little or nothing to prevent it; and, presumably, its hope that—through it all—they could preserve a viable relationship with their principal client in the Middle East, Nasser.
On the whole, the Soviets have behaved within the kind of guidelines suggested by the considerations listed above. They have maintained their propaganda attack against Israel; they have continued publicly to support the Arab cause; and after hostilities broke out they quickly made first contact with the US to proclaim their interest in peace and, implicitly, to reassure President Johnson that they plan no confrontation with the US over this issue.
Fedorenko’s agreement in the UN to a ceasefire without the conditions demanded by the Arabs presumably reflected Soviet fear that, unless the fighting was soon halted, the Arabs would suffer a disastrous defeat. But this same action cost the USSR something within the Arab world. The partial Soviet abandonment of the Arabs at the UN will have to many the appearance of at least a partial sell-out.
Moscow has probably decided that its task now is to pick up as many pieces in the Middle East as it can, and has probably already estimated that its chances to recoup from recent setbacks are fairly good, especially over the long term. The Soviets still have impressive advantages in the area, the principal ones being the high tide of anti-US and anti-Israeli feeling, and the Arab belief that the USSR is the only major power likely to provide support for them in the foreseeable future. The Soviets probably believe that the US has suffered more severe and lasting political losses in the Arab world than they have.
The Soviets are probably hurting enough to take a new look at their attitudes and policies toward the Middle East. But they are probably [Page 405] not hurting enough to abandon their normal caution in international affairs to seek compensation for their losses by lashing out against the US elsewhere in the world. There are no places where dramatic Soviet gains could be scored without risking a confrontation with the US or, at the very least, substantial damage to existing Soviet policies.
We do not foresee a period of active Soviet cooperation with the US in the Middle East. Soviet willingness to act in at least partial concert with the US on the question of an immediate and unconditional ceasefire was born of the needs of the moment and did not, we think, reflect long-term considerations (other than the standard Soviet desire to avoid direct confrontation with the US). Basic US and Soviet goals in the Middle East—including, for example, the USSR’s wish to increase its presence in the area and the US desire to prevent this—have not been altered by the current crisis.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Situation Reports. Top Secret; [codeword not declassified]. A handwritten “L” on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.