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142. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger1

SUBJECT

  • The Soviet Role in the Middle East War

Soviet conduct is increasingly worrisome, both in retrospect and as it unfolds now.

That there was Soviet foreknowledge of the imminence of military action seems beyond dispute. Whether there was active encouragement of the Arabs may be questionable—though there may well have been advance assurance of assistance. Whether there was any effort at restraint is equally questionable; conceivably Arab preparations were so far advanced by the time the Soviets became properly aware of them that efforts at restraint would have been ineffectual. Moreover, the Soviets are not known for their readiness to expend political capital with people bent on a course of action.

Speculation that the evacuation from Syria bespoke active Soviet opposition to Arab plans and perhaps even an intent to break relations is pretty persuasively contradicted by indications that the aircraft that went to fetch Soviet nationals carried hardware deliveries of some kind. In addition, a rough comparison with the startup of the 1967 airlift will almost certainly show that the current operation is of greater initial intensity, i.e., that there had to be advance planning, probably going back before October 6.

The airlift itself must be seen against the background of Soviet diplomatic activity. This now plainly involves incitement of other Arabs to join in the fighting, including even Jordan whose history of agony in these situations is well known.2

The Soviet press itself remains relatively restrained. But what is crucial at this moment is not what the Soviets say to their own people but what they say to Arabs. And that, together with their evidently deliberate stalling tactics at the UN (even discounting Chinese mischief-making in claiming actual knowledge of these tactics), is calculated to prolong the fighting.

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Whatever one’s hypothesis concerning Soviet pre-hostility conduct (foreknowledge is clear, but precisely where on the scale between open incitement and active opposition the actual Soviet position was, is not clear), it seems likely that the Soviets were somewhat surprised by the extent of Arab successes once the fighting started. The Brezhnev round-robin messages to Arabs and the air supply operation got going when the odds for a status quo plus end to the war for the Arabs were rising. The Soviets may even have become infected with the optimism of the Egyptians and begun to feel by early this week that a real Israeli defeat was in the making.3 In this situation, the explanations of Soviet conduct in 1967 are hardly applicable this time. Then, the Soviets could be said to be engaging in a salvage operation, an effort to restore some bargaining leverage for their clients, a warning to Israel to stop at the Canal and on the Golan Heights, and an effort to retain influence, and Brezhnev may have had to move quickly to save his political neck. In the end, the Soviets did at least contribute to ending the fighting.

In the present case, they may smell victory and the credit that comes with it. They may see an opportunity to participate in a settlement far more palatable to the Arabs than one based on the 1967 cease-fire lines. They cannot be indifferent to the advantages accruing to their power position and image from the humiliation of a US client. (Incidentally, apparent Soviet violations of the Greek and maybe Turkish air control zones will sooner or later become general knowledge, if that is what actually is happening. They are NATO countries.) There is bound to be some connection between Soviet conduct in the war and the Jewish emigration problem; quite possibly the regime may judge that a humiliated, defeated Israel will have less appeal to Soviet Jews. In any event, extended warfare serves as a not implausible pretext for the regime’s shutting off the flow, whatever the reaction in the US Congress.

There is in the present situation a haunting possibility of Soviet miscalculation of our reactions. Watergate, Agnew, energy jitters, the President’s stake in détente—all of this and more may lead the Soviets to judge that their room for maneuver is considerable, not to mention the limited US military capacity in the region of conflict. One should not of course assume unanimity in Moscow. But though there are no telltale signs of internal argument and maneuvering as in 1967, Brezhnev may see an opportunity to disarm many of his critics on the [Page 418]right by publicly aligning himself with the Arab cause. At any rate he is firmly on the side of war in his messages to the Arabs, whatever he may say privately in other channels. He does not seem to be reluctantly acquiescing to hawks.

There is also some slight indication of a Soviet effort to lull us, apart from what may be coming to you in the special channel. Semyonov in Geneva seems to have telescoped his schedule in presenting the new Soviet SALT proposal. What had looked like a drawn-out series of preparatory speeches was suddenly terminated yesterday with the tabling of the Soviet draft which, while clearly unacceptable, does constitute a reply to our last proposal and thus an effort to keep the SALT game active.

It is of course true that Soviet conduct before and during the war does not necessarily provide a clue of what role the Soviets may eventually play in bringing the fighting to a close and in working for some sort of settlement. Without speculating about that in detail now, it seems unlikely that the Soviets will be more inclined than before to pressure the Arabs for concessions if the latter should end up flushed with success. But the prospect of even the most helpful Soviet attitude on these matters at some future time must be weighed against the character of Soviet conduct before and during the war. And that, to me, suggests a judgment either that the US commitment to détente is such that the Soviets have substantial leeway in the Middle East or that the stakes of actively supporting the Arabs override any losses due to the disruption of relations with us. In either case, the time is approaching that the Soviets should be proven wrong. Even if the Administration does not take the steps to do so, Congress almost certainly will.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 68, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Dobrynin/Kissinger, Vol. 19, [July 13, 1973–Oct. 11, 1973]. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for urgent attention. Kissinger initialed the memorandum.
  2. See footnote 6, Document 135.
  3. In telegram 3031 from Cairo, October 10, the Embassy reported that Soviet Ambassador Vinogradov, who had been meeting with Sadat every day since the outbreak of war, had said that the Soviet Union would deliver whatever was necessary for resupply of the Egyptian forces, just as it had to North Vietnam. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1174, Harold H. Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations Files, 1973 Middle East War, 10 October 1973, File No. 5)