98. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State and the Embassy in Spain1

11305. Madrid Pass to Secretary’s Party. Subject: Definitive Soviet Statement on KAL Downing.

1. Confidential—Entire text.

2. Summary. In stating that Soviet fighters “stopped the flight” of KAL 007, an authoritative Soviet Government statement has effectively admitted to having downed the Korean jetliner. The statement directly contradicts several points of President Reagan’s September 5 speech,2 implies that the decision to shoot down the Korean aircraft was made at a relatively low level, and lays all responsibility for the tragedy at the feet of the United States. End summary.

3. Soviet admission. An authoritative statement by the Soviet Government on the KAL tragedy was simultaneously broadcast over Soviet television and carried by TASS the evening of September 6. The piece, stating that planes of the Soviet air defense forces “fulfilled the order of the command post to stop the flight” after it allegedly ignored tracer warning shots, effectively admits the Soviets downed the unarmed KAL airliner. The government statement nonetheless lays all blame for the incident at the feet of “the leaders of the United States of America,” which it accuses of having cynically organized the flight for reconnaissance purposes.

4. Soviet version of events. According to the statement, the “intruder plane” entered Soviet air space over Kamchatka “in an area where a most important base of the strategic nuclear forces of the USSR is located” “at the same time” as an RC–135 was flying “near the Soviet border at the same altitude.”3 Of several interceptors scrambled, one [Page 341] monitored the RC–135 while another signalled to the “intruder plane” that it had entered Soviet air space. This warning was ignored. When the aircraft approached Sakhalin, interceptors again attempted to establish contact, “including with the help of the general call signal on the international frequency of 121.5 megacycles.” These signals “had to be received by the intruder plane” but it did not respond to these or other signals. The statement then notes that “Soviet radio control services picked up short coded radio signals transmitted from time to time, such signals that are usually used in transmitting intelligence information.”

5. Implying that the shootdown decision was made at a relatively low level, the statement continues that “the anti-aircraft forces command of the area” analyzed the route of the aircraft passing as it did over “strategically important areas,” and arrived at the conclusion that it was a reconnaissance aircraft performing “special tasks.” “As envisaged by international rules,” the fighter plane fired warning shots, but these were ignored, as were demands to fly to a Soviet airfield, and the aircraft tried to evade pursuit. Then, “the interceptor-fighter plane of the anti-aircraft defenses fulfilled the order of the command post to stop the flight.”

6. Soviet justification. The Soviet statement justifies “stopping” the aircraft on the grounds that the interceptor pilots had no idea that this was a civilian aircraft and that such action is “fully in keeping with the law on the state border of the USSR” which in turn is “fully in accord with international regulations.” The statement declares that it is one of the commonly recognized principles of international law that every state has the sovereign right to protect its borders, in particular its airspace. The Soviets continue to claim that the aircraft had no navigation lights, and that night-time visibility was bad. “The assertions of the United States President that Soviet pilots knew that it was a civilian aircraft are not in keeping with reality.”

7. President contradicted. At several points, statement directly disputes statements by President Reagan in his September 5 speech. It alleges that—contrary to President Reagan’s assertion—Soviet fighters are in fact capable of communication on the international emergency frequency and sought to communicate with the KAL aircraft on it. It accuses President Reagan of cynicism in remarking that “no one will ever know” how the KAL 747’s navigational computers were programmed. The plane’s deviation from its flight plan was not, according to the statement, a technical error, but a plan to carry out an intelligence operation.

8. Alleged U.S. motives. The statement, in speculating on U.S. motives for utilizing the KAL aircraft for an alleged provocation, points the direction of future Soviet propaganda damage limitation. The U.S., hoping to avoid the solution of major international tensions, according [Page 342] to the Soviets, chose the moment carefully to have maximum impact on arms control efforts. Using the incident to distract attention from Soviet peace initiatives, the USG is accused of seeking to intensify confrontation with the USSR in accordance with “the President’s credo—peace through strength.” The statement ends with the sentence: “The entire responsibility for this tragedy rests wholly and fully with the leaders of the United States of America.”

9. Comment. This evening’s statement represents the definitive Soviet explanation of the KAL tragedy. Despite the statement’s expression of condolences to the families of the KAL dead, there is no contrition in the Soviet statement, no admission of responsibility, nor willingness to take steps to ensure it is not repeated. This is the statement of a regime caught in an abhorrent act it can no longer deny, and seeking desperately to avoid the consequences.

10. Embassy is distributing to U.S. and West European press the following statement, attributed to an Embassy spokesman: Begin text: The Soviet statement is much too little and much too late. While the Soviets have finally been compelled by the weight of the evidence to admit that they shot down the Korean airliner, virtually every other element in their statement is obviously designed to evade their full responsibility for the atrocity which they have committed. End text.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, European and Soviet Affairs Directorate, NSC USSR File, USSR-KAL Incident (09/01/83) (3); NLR–170–17–40–1–9. Confidential; Niact Immediate. Sent for information to Leningrad, Bonn, London, Paris, USNATO, USUN, Seoul, and Tokyo. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See Document 94. For the text of the September 6 Soviet statement, see the New York Times, September 7, 1983, p. A16.
  3. In a statement on September 5, Eagleburger explained: “A U.S. RC–135 aircraft was in the vicinity of the Korean airliner on August 31 when the airliner was initially detected by Soviet radar. Both aircraft were then in international air space. The U.S. routinely conducts unarmed RC–135 flights in the international air space off the Kamchatka Peninsula to monitor by national technical means Soviet compliance with the SALT treaties. The Soviets conduct similar monitoring activities near U.S. missile testing sites. The Soviets are aware of our flights and track them routinely. They know that our aircraft do not enter their air space. The Korean aircraft’s inadvertent entry into Soviet territory should have been an early and strong indication to the Soviets that the flight was not a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.” (Telegram 253015 to Montreal, September 7; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830511–0542)