74. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • The Soviets and the Middle East Dilemma

On several recent occasions, Soviet diplomats, including Gromyko, have made it clear that the Middle East will be a “major item” on the Summit agenda. And they may be holding out to Sadat and possibly other Arabs the hope of significant movement toward a peace settlement resulting from the Summit. As long ago as November, Dobrynin speculated to Sisco that an agreement on a set of “principles” ought to come out of the summit,2 and in the last weeks the Soviets have been actively probing what the US might have in mind.

There are some worrisome aspects in this situation. Some people, like the Israelis, believe that the Soviets are preparing to set us up for a diplomatic kill in Moscow by accepting the Rogers’ Plan as a basis for an Arab–Israeli settlement. According to this theory, the Soviets, knowing that the Egyptians would settle on this basis and that the Israelis strongly oppose because of the provision for full withdrawal, would attempt to draw the President out by endorsing our earlier position. This would put us on the spot again because we could not produce the Israelis. If it worked, the Soviets would be seen as favoring an American plan but they could also pose as the champions of peace in the Middle East and demonstrate to their Arab clients that they are doing something useful in the diplomatic realm.

They may, of course, simply be interested in eliciting some sense of what could be the basis for negotiation now rather than in seriously embarrassing us. This would be more likely to be the case if they genuinely want (a) progress toward a settlement and (b) to avoid a situation where they would have to commit forces.

Nevertheless, the question arises, at least as a contingency in the Soviet view, of what their alternatives would be should it become clear that diplomacy had run its course. Could the Soviets contemplate military action; indeed, could they stop it even if they insisted? The Egyptians [Page 237] seem generally to be waiting for the outcome of the summit before deciding on next steps, and the reaction could be sharp if they are disillusioned by its results. The Israelis, of course, hope that the Egyptians and Soviets would then conclude that they have no recourse but to negotiate with Israel. The Soviet–Arab alternative is to try to increase the threat of military action another notch.

Judging by the performance in the Indo–Pak confrontation, there comes a time when the Soviets realize that if military action cannot be avoided, they must have achieved some degree of influence over timing and tactics, and the outcome. In contrast to their political role at the UN in the Indian crisis, in the Middle East, their military presence almost ensures some direct involvement of their own personnel, at least in Egypt. If it is true that the present balance would guarantee a defeat for the Egyptians, then one line of Soviet action would be to use their own forces to redress the balance and guarantee at least a standoff, or possibly some limited Egyptian gains. This, of course, would run a very high risk that we would enter into picture to “right the balance” in favor of the Israelis. Against this background, it is worth noting the rather extensive Soviet diplomatic activity in the past two months.


Egypt. The Soviets have long held the view (as we have) that Egypt’s basic military problem is not the quality and quantity of its equipment but the morale, technical capabilities and proficiency of its military personnel. Yet despite the fact that more advanced weaponry at this point only brings marginal improvement, the Soviets, in response to Egyptian pleas, keep introducing it. Thus when Sadat went to Moscow in February3 and made a strong pitch for more advanced equipment, they promised TU–22 supersonic bombers, more advanced versions of the MIG–21 and T–62 tanks. This followed the provision of a squadron of missile carrying T–16 bombers and several high–altitude FOXBAT reconnaissance aircraft with Soviet pilots and a training program as a result of Sadat’s visit to Moscow last October.4 The point is that in Egyptian hands this equipment will not significantly improve their offensive capability, although it will give them at least a temporary psychological boost and will maintain Soviet influence in Cairo.

Marshal Grechko visited Cairo soon after Sadat’s mission to Moscow,5 and brought with him a very high level military delegation, including the commander of the Soviet Air Force and the first deputy [Page 238] commanders of the Soviet Navy and Air Defense and a first deputy Chief–of–Staff. The result was a cryptic announcement of an “exchange of views” on strengthening Egypt’s “defense capacity” but the Soviets must be reviewing their own military position.


Iraq. While Grechko was in Egypt, the Iraqi leader, Saddam Husayn, led a delegation to Moscow, apparently at Iraqi initiative.6 He made a speech about the need to develop relations to the level of a “firm strategic alliance.”

The final communiqué (February 17) referred to a “study of measures” that could be taken “in the near future” to consolidate relations in “treaties.” On March 12, Moscow radio predicted a new treaty. This is not a purely Arab–Israeli development, since Soviet interests in Iraq also relate to their ambitions in the Persian Gulf.

Syria. Almost immediately after the Iraqis departed from Moscow, a Soviet delegation, led by Politburo member Kiril Mazurov, arrived in Damascus.7 The first result was a “cooperation agreement” between the Baath party and the CPSU. A party–to–party agreement is something of an achievement in terms of Soviet efforts to exert influence in the Arab world through ruling parties, and to steer them toward national fronts that include the communists. The visit, however, had military aspects. The communiqué indicated that “possible” steps for promoting Syria “defense capability” had been discussed. And Mazurov in a speech referred to a “document” having been signed on this subject. There is also speculation that the question of a Soviet–Syrian treaty was discussed. It is also noteworthy, though not necessarily directly related, that the Syrians shortly after the visit publicly accepted Security Council Resolution 242—as interpreted by the Arabs—as a basis for a peace settlement.
Libya, Algeria, Cyprus. Despite the rather bitter Libyan denunciation of Moscow during the Indo–Pak war, Jallud8 came to Moscow in early March to discuss economic, political, and military relations—and speculation is that he bartered Libyan petroleum for Soviet military aid (which might be eventually destined for Egypt). Soviet relations with Algeria also took a small turn for the better as a result of Foreign Trade Minister Patolichev’s negotiation in Algiers for a new trade agreement.
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Of course, the Soviets have been active in pressing their special claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, through warning against interference in Cyprus, protests against US homeporting in Greece, and in his March 20 speech Brezhnev characterized Soviet–Arab relations as broadening in “defense cooperation.”9

The conventional wisdom is that the Soviets are hedging against a deterioration of their relations with Egypt and, to this end, are consolidating their position in the Arab world generally. Moreover, it is still the standard estimate, based to some degree on Soviet reassurances, that the USSR is a force for moderation and restraint or at least is not willing to take actions which might risk a confrontation with us.

This is reasonable, but looks mainly to the past record and present situation. It is not inconceivable that the Soviets are toying with the notion of a deeper military involvement or at least trying to create the impression of a greater military threat to Israel. Certainly, signing treaties with the erratic regimes in Damascus and Baghdad would be a step toward a greater identification of Soviet power and prestige with governments they cannot control.

One can only wonder how the Soviets would honor whatever treaty obligations they undertake toward Syria. One possibility would be to tentative station Soviet forces there.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 67, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Sonnenfeldt Papers [2 of 2]. Secret; Outside System. Sent for information.
  2. Sisco and Dobrynin discussed the Soviet proposal for a set of “principles” on the Middle East during a meeting on November 1; see footnote 2, Document 10.
  3. See Document 43.
  4. See Document 5.
  5. Grechko visited Egypt from February 18 to 21, 1972. For a summary both of the visit and of the joint communiqué, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIV, No. 8, March 22, 1972, p. 22.
  6. Hussein visited the Soviet Union February 11–17. For a summary of the visit and a condensed text of the joint communiqué, see ibid., vol. XXIV, No. 7, March 15, 1972, pp. 7–8, 32.
  7. Mazurov visited Syria from February 21 to 26, 1972. For a condensed text of the joint communiqué, see ibid., vol. XXIV, No. 8, pp. 20–21.
  8. Major Abdul Salam Jalloud, member of the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council and Minister of the Economy and Industry.
  9. See Document 65.