This paper examines the two main schools of thought on why the Soviets issued the 1967 Report to Egypt’s Nasser, the President at the time, warning of an imminent Israeli attack, when, as we know now, there was no such threat. Was it a mistake, was it on purpose- if so, what were their aims? By analysing Nasser’s reactions, information on the Kremlin as well as Russia’s strategic interest in the region, including the current social-political dynamics of Nasser’s diminishing stance as leader of the Arab world, and the demise of the UAR (United Arab Republic), it seems that the two schools of thought are both faulty and oversimplified.
Why Did the Soviets Issue the 1967 Report?
On the 13th of May 1967 Egypt received a message from Soviet intelligence stating Israel was amassing ten to twelve brigades on the Israeli-Syrian border between the dates of the 17th and 21st of May. This Soviet Report led Nasser to move forces into the Sinai, expel the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and by the 23rd of May he declared he would block the Straits of Tiran. On the 5th of June, 1967, Israel attacked, and once again Israel was officially at war with another Arab country. However, “it is widely acknowledged that the Soviet Report, which for a long time has been one of the most puzzling features of the run-up to the 1967 war, was false” (Bregman 2002, 45).
Much of the evidence points to the Soviets as having purely fabricating a perceived threat with the intent of triggering armed conflict while other evidence points to their intent to increase already existing tensions in the region. This essay will examine the evidence supporting the first school of thought believing the Soviets as wanting a war in their fabrication of an imminent Israeli threat in the 1967 Soviet Report, and then will examine the evidence supporting the second school of thought arguing they didn’t want a war. After examining the literature on both schools of thought, it became apparent both were limiting in gaining a coherent understanding to why the Soviets issued the 1967 report, as they were susceptible to their own biases.
The First School of Thought
Soviet Exploitation of Tensions in the Region
This part of the essay will examine the literature and data supporting the school of thought of the Soviets wanting a war when releasing the 1967 Soviet Report. From the 15th to the 19th of May Arab ambassadors were informed by Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko of an imminent Israeli attack on Syria (CIA 1970, 5). Egyptian intelligence chief Salah Nasir received a message from Dasmascus:
“…we have learned from a dependable source that, one, Israel has mobilized most of
its reserves and that, two, It has concentrated the bulk of its forces on the Syrian border. The estimate force strength is 15 brigades. Three, The Israelis are planning a large-scale attack on Syria, including paratrooper drops, to take place between the 15th and the 22nd of May” (Oren 2002, 55).
Much of the prior literature discussing the reasoning behind the Soviet Report places, first and foremost, Soviet policy as being dominated by the context of the Cold War and the USSR’s role in it. This framework explains the Soviets releasing such a report to Egypt with the intention of stirring the pot, so to speak.
According to this school of thought, the Soviets exploited the position of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, to aid their own interests. As the “uncontested leadership of the Arab nationalist march”, Nasser suffered, as this “charismatic halo began to fade” after the collapse of the UAR [United Arab Republic] in 1961 (Dawisha 2003). Arab nationalism was dwindling in the region once the British had left Egypt and Iraq, lending more pressure to Nasser to re-spark this sentiment. This would mean that Nasser was ripe for the picking for the Soviets to use to their advantage to increase tensions in the Middle East and further the anti-Western sentiment by creating threats from Israel.
A CIA report released in 1970 argues the Soviets knew that Nasser would be under pressure to display solidarity with Syria as it would emphasise his strength to “demonstrate his leadership of the Arab world and to prove the worth of the November defense pact”- a Mutual Defense Pact between Egypt and Syria signed in 1966. (CIA 1970, 3). Ignoring the perceived Israeli threat on Syria would be a blow to Nasser’s already damaged prestige.
Nasser’s reaction to the Soviet Report proved he was in a delicate position and further supports reasoning for why the Soviet’s would want to exploit this position. Anwar Sadat, speaker of the Egyptian parliament, first received the message of an imminent Israeli threat when he was in Moscow. While Mohammad Fawzi, Egypt’s chief of staff, was flying over Syria to confirm the information, Nasser had mobilised Egyptian forces who were pouring into the Sinai (Bregman & el-Tahri 1998, 75). The removal of the UNEF in the Sinai and blocking of the Straits of Tiran were rash, bold moves on Nasser’s part. He also ignored the repeated claims by Levi Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel, that the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba was an act of aggression. Many argue then, that the Soviets exploited this exact volatile position Nasser was in at the time to support their own political interests in the Cold War against the United States.
Not only was Nasser’s tentative position exploited by the Soviet Report, but also the already tense relations between Syria and Israel and their ongoing border skirmishes. Syria and Israel were experiencing combustive relationships in their three “bones of contention”, namely, the water dispute regarding the Sea of Galilee, the unresolved issue of the Palestinians, and the three demilitarised zones on the international border (Bregman 2002, 42-43). According to the first school of thought, this acted as a pre-text for the Soviets fabricating the threat specifically from Israel towards Syria and giving this information to Sadat during his visit in Moscow.
Why the Soviets would want a War
The 1967 war is often seen as a “Soviet attempt to exploit the local states in order to score points in its confrontation with the US” (Bregman 2002, 44). Releasing a warning of a potential Israeli attack on Syria to Egypt held the potential to aid the Soviets in their conflict against the United States in many ways, of which three main ones will be discussed. First, it would serve as a strong reminder for the Arab countries’ need and reliance on Soviet aid. This would explain the specificity of the ten to twelve brigades mobilised on the border, “magnifying the threat Israel really posed on Syria” as the Soviets found themselves “influenced by their own propaganda on imperialist and Zionist perfidy” (Oren 2003, 55).
The second potential benefit fabricating an imminent Israeli threat on Syria had for the Soviets was increasing Nasser’s stature. The Soviet’s motivation for releasing such a report has been argued to be due to “cultivate the newly emerging nationalist Arab regimes” and further provoke the anti-Western sentiment (CIA 1970, 2). Nasser, as representative of Egypt, a powerful actor in the region, would then be an enlarged threat to Western imperialism, the epitome of which was perceived to be, in the Arab world, Israel. In this sense, releasing such a Report would benefit the Soviets in increasing their opposition towards the United States and Western imperialism in the Cold War.
The third potential benefit was the further strengthening of the Soviet-Syrian alliance. Syria was a strategic player for the Soviets in the Cold War and had become a new client for them, as “the Soviets began publicly endors[ing] an increasingly militant anti-Israel line” (CIA 1970, 2). This affected the Soviet Union’s decision regarding their report, as the prospective of an attack on Syria by Israel would push the UAR to be closer to Syria, and therefore strengthen Syrian-Egyptian relations. The Soviets seemingly “capitalize[d] on the prevailing tension” to further “their influence at the expense of the United States” which led them to releasing the report (CIA 1970, 3).
Another potential benefit has been argued to be, although less widely so, the possibility of another war in the Arab world causing “another trouble spot for the United States in addition to that already existing in Vietnam” (Bregman & El-Tahri 1998, 76). It becomes clear there are an array of possible benefits such a report would have for the Soviets that support the school of thought arguing they fabricated the threat with the intent of triggering a war.
Research of the Soviet leadership at the time further supports the first school of thought. Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, released a report in 1966 to the 23rd congress of the Communist Party proving the Kremlin was suspecting Israel of “planning an act of aggression against Syria” (Bar-Noi 2011). While they released the report in the aim to “manipulate Nasser into assisting Syria”, they underestimated Israel militarily (Bar-Noi 2011). Maintaining high-tension in the Middle East and furthering the Arab-Israeli conflict would benefit the position of Brezhnev, yet his report also shows they did not expect Nasser to react in such a way and the snow-balling chain of disastrous events that followed.
This points to the likelihood of the Cold War affecting the Soviet’s motivations relative to the 1967 report due to the many potential benefits triggering a war had, at the time, for the Soviets, and the tentative circumstances that were exploited in the releasing of such a report, it does not wholly prove that the 1967 Soviet Report was released with the intent of creating a war that would aid their battle against the United States. However, it is undeniable the USSR in the context at the time as a superpower vying for domination against the United States with proxy-states in the Middle East is an important and influential factor to be considered in regards to the motivations behind the 1967 Soviet Report.
The Second School of Thought
The Soviets Are Wrongly Accused
Tensions in the Middle East were already volatile prior to 1967, which is often forgotten when analysing the 1967 Soviet Report. The Cold War largely shaped and affected the dynamics of the Middle East in the 1960’s, yet research also points to the Soviet leadership as not wanting an armed conflict. Initially, the superpowers prevented a war from occurring in 1967. Israel went to Washington on the 26th to ask for permission and Lindon Johnston showed the ‘red light’- “warning them not to be the first to strike” (Bregman 2002, 55). Similarly, when Egypt asked Moscow for permission to go to war, they were also denied permission.
This supports the school of thought of the faulty intelligence released by the Soviets was without the intent of triggering a war. Moscow, it seemed, “was not inclined to take any military action against Israel” (Bar-Noi 2011). It may be argued, then, that Moscow “had no desire to encourage its Arab clients to wage war against Israel” and that perhaps Nasser had “misinterpreted Moscow’s intensions and blocked the Gulf of Aqaba without the Kremlin’s knowledge” (Bar-Noi 2011).
The Soviets also showed hesitation in regards to providing aid to Egypt in the case of a war. By 1967, Cairo was almost entirely dependent on Moscow for military aid (CIA 1970, 1). Yet Shams Badran, the minister of defense of Egypt, told Nasser “the Soviets would not allow Egypt to strike” and would not provide aid, but would intervene in the case of American intervention “on behalf of Israel” (Bregman 2002, 54). The Soviet’s unwillingness to provide military aid further supports the Soviets as having no intention of inciting an armed conflict. The Soviets claimed “there was no place to land planes as the airfields too had been destroyed” (CIA 2002, 18). However, the Brezhnev report, as previously mentioned, shows intent to manipulate Nasser, also held elements of “determin[ation] to avert further deterioration in the Middle East” after the closure of the Straits of Tiran and thus “exert[ed] diplomatic pressure upon the Israeli government” (Bar-Noi 2011). This shows an element of self-preservation in Soviet policy.
While much of the discussion on the curious events leading up to the 1967 war is focused on Soviet motivation and likelihood of their capitalising on the situation in Syria or on Nasser’s tentative position, others argue it was Nasser who capitalised on public Soviet support. Some believe Nasser had plans to move forces into Sinai prior to the war, and he used the supposed threat of an Israeli attack to justify this move, which would explain the Soviets being “taken aback when Nasser blocked the Gulf of Aqaba without having consulted them” (Bar-Noi 2011). This would further support the second school of thought.
An Error in Judgement
The strongest supporting evidence of the Soviets releasing faulty information unintentionally may be due to the lack of artillery displayed in the 1967 Israel Independence Day Parade in West Jerusalem. As the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement banned heavy amour in Jerusalem, it was the smallest parade in the history of Israeli’s Independence Day Parades, which may have led the Soviet’s to believe “the absence of tanks and artillery” from the parade as “concrete evidence” that the “weapons had been moved up north” (Oren 2003, 54). However, an overwhelming amount of evidence points to the Soviets knowingly releasing faulty information but without the intent of triggering a war.
Beyond the Two Schools of Thought
After analysing the research supporting both schools of thought, it appears the Soviets did not follow one policy or motivation, and to treat the subject matter as such is a fallacy. Egyptian records show the Soviet Union, rather than “fanning the flames of war” was really a “force for restraint and de-escalation in its contacts with Egyptian officials” (Elbahtimy 2017). In a meeting on May 25th between Soviet generals and the Egyptian delegation in Moscow, the Soviets claimed “it was not the right time for a military confrontation with the forces of capitalism and imperialism” and that the Soviets “wanted to avoid a confrontation with the US” (Elbahtimy 2017). On May 26th show Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier, said to the Egyptian delegation:
“…politically, you prevailed. Militarily you prevailed. What do you want now? My view is that what you achieved is enough.” (Elbahtimy 2017).
Here, excerpts between the Soviet leadership and the Egyptian delegation in Moscow show that the “Soviets became a force for restraint rather than confrontation” (Elbahtimy 2017).
However, the multitude of interviews, quotes, and claims are contradictory. Despite Kosygin’s urging the Egyptian delegation not to go to war, Moscow’s refusal to give permission for Egypt to go to war, and the Soviet’s surprise at Nasser’s movements, other research shows parts of the Soviet leadership as wanting a war. Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in his memoirs,
“…asserts that the USSR’s military command first encouraged high-raking Egyptian and Syrian delegations, in a series of ‘hush-hush’ mutual visits, to go to war […] in the full knowledge they were aimed at starting a war to destroy Israel” (Ginor 2000, 45).
This highlights the amount of secrecy and the multidimensional nature of Soviet policy at the time. According to an incoming telegram to the US Department of State, the Soviets militarily aided Nasser in the removal of the UNEF forces from the Sinai and the blocking of the Straits of Tiran in secret (Ginor 2000, 45). Words from Kosygin show the Soviet leadership did not want a war, yet Khrushchev’s memoirs show the opposite in their urging Egyptian and Syrian high-ranking delegations to go to war and militarily backed Nasser’s movements in the Sinai in secret. The Brezhnev report in its diversity of policies and intentions, encapsulates the Soviets at the time as not having a coherent, singular, agenda within their leadership and party.
In order to constructively critique and assess the motivations behind the 1967 report, the multitude of the circumstances of the time must all be taken into account. This includes Nasser’s vital but fragile positionality, the Cold War between the Superpowers (including the United States’ involvement in Vietnam at the time and the Soviet’s interest in Syria) but also their initial refusal to give permission to either proxy state to go to war, the Israeli Independence Day Parade, and proof of the Soviets de-escalating and urging Egypt against an attack towards Israel but also fabricating and exaggerating threats. Upon careful examination, it becomes abundantly clear the two schools of thought are limiting to explain Soviet motivation in 1967.
Much of the prior literature published on the subject matter either supports one school of thought or the other. Many revolve around the idea of Arab nationalism and attempt to cherry-pick certain events that will support the 1967 Soviet Report as being a mere tool to exploit this in their battle against the United States. Other literature attempts to prove the innocence of the Soviets in the 1967 war by compiling data of their reluctance to provide aid before and during the war.
As all things are in the realm of war, where one event may lead to a multitude of possibilities – therefore lending to the impossibility of fully understanding motivations prior to a war – the Soviet Report triggered a chain of events no one could have foreseen, making it difficult to pinpoint the Soviet’s motivations in releasing the 1967 report as a singular, linear, planning process. To declare, as the 1970 CIA report did, the Soviet’s intention in 1967 was simply to battle the United States in a cold war through proxy-states in the region, is hasty and reductionist. Similarly, denying the Soviets of any blame in the causes of the 1967 war by focusing on the proof of the Soviet leadership not wanting a war, is over simplified.
The Soviet’s issuing the 1967 war was affected by their role in the Cold War, their interest in the region, and the instinctive desire for self-preservation. It is necessary to examine each source discussing the 1967 Soviet Report by questioning the author’s intent as well as the biases the institution or person may have. The war that changed the face of the Middle East was not the result of a linear case of planning or singular policy of the Soviets but rather, the result of many events, agendas and circumstances.
Bar-Noi, Uri. (2011). The Soviet Union and the Six-Day War: Revelations from the Polish Archives. Wilson Center. Retrieved from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-soviet-union-and-the-six-day-war-revelations-the-polish-archives
Bregman, A. & El-Tahri, J. (1998). The Gathering Storm. In Israel and the Arabs: An Eyewitness Account of War and Peace in the Middle East. New York: TV Books, L.L.C.
Bregman, Ahron. (2002). The Six Bad Years 1967-73. In Israel’s Wars, 1947-93. New York: Routledge:
Bregman, Ahron. (2017). Lecture notes in “War and Insurgency in the Middle East Since 1945” at King’s College London, 3 November 2017.
Central Intelligence Agency (1970). Intelligence Report: Soviet Policy and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Dawisha, Adeed (2003). Requiem for Arab Nationalism. The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, 25-41. Retrieved from http://www.meforum.org/518/requiem-for-arab-nationalism
Elbahtimy, Hassan. (2017). Did the Soviet Union Deliberately Instigate the 1967 War in the Middle East? Wilson Center. Retrieved from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/did-the-soviet-union-deliberately-instigate-the-1967-war-the-middle-east
Ginor, Isabella. (2000). The Russians were Coming: The Soviet Military Threat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Rubin Center. Vol. 4, No. 4. Retrieved from http://www.rubincenter.org/meria/2000/12/ginor.pdf
Moshe, Gat. (2006). Nasser and the Six Day War, 5 June 1967: A Premeditated Strategy or an Inexorable Drift to War? Israel Affairs, 11:4. doi: 10.1080/13537120500233714
Oren, Michael. (2003). Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.