Weaver on Ginor and Remez, 'The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973: The USSR's Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict'

Author: 
Isabella Ginor, Gideon Remez
Reviewer: 
Michael Weaver

Isabella Ginor, Gideon Remez. The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973: The USSR's Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 400 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-069348-0.

Reviewed by Michael Weaver (Air University, Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (May, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50860

Soviet Meddling in the Middle East: 1967-73

Ten years after their pathbreaking work, Foxbats Over Dimona (2007)Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez have again added to our understanding of the role of the Soviet Union in the conflict between Egypt and Israel.[1]] It is clear after examining Ginor and Remez’s case that Egypt was more than the Soviet Union’s proxy; they were partners in a joint effort to overturn the results of the Six-Day War. Soviet leaders not only supported Egypt’s agenda, they had their own goals in the region. Moscow considered Israel to be a nuclear-armed American threat to the Soviet heartland. Therefore Soviet goals became “containment, then reversal of the Israeli gains by military means” (p. 13). The Soviet Union was as much a driver as a sponsor of this conflict that escalated into three wars in seven years.

The nature of the source material available for shedding light on these events has made The Soviet-Israeli War as much a work of historical forensics as it is an attempt to write an accurate, updated narrative. Many Israeli records have not been released, and the Soviet Union and then Russia destroyed thousands of relevant documents as a matter of state policy. In spite of those challenges, the authors have analyzed a multitude of existing records written in Hebrew, Russian, and English to piece together seven years of events. Novels about the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War Russian participants wrote after freedoms expanded in the late 1980s form one of the more interesting sets of sources. This was a way veterans could print their stories without explicitly violating secrecy oaths, and the authors fully concede their shortcomings as evidence. They have also found reasons for second-guessing accounts by two individuals who have done a great deal to shape the narrative of this conflict: Henry Kissinger and the “Egyptian propagandist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal” (p. xvi). They disagree with Heikal as to when regular Soviet forces first arrived in Egypt. They argue that they arrived in 1967 and that their presence and activity was constant and ongoing and demonstrate it by noting ongoing activity by Soviet forces in Egypt from that time forward. Egyptian sources for their arguments are few. In the end Ginor and Remez explicitly trust no collective body of evidence because each has significant shortcomings; they have to triple-check each piece of evidence to a degree much greater than many historians examining other topics. Although they stand by their conclusions and argue them well, they are honest enough to remind readers that theirs is not the definitive account because of these evidential challenges. 

Ginor and Remez convincingly argue their case by demonstrating how Soviet actions were those of an actor who was an integral part of Egyptian military affairs. Soviet military personnel not only functioned as advisors and trainers to their Egyptian counterparts, they also fought alongside them and even in all-Soviet formations. The latter was most pronounced within air defense operations. Soviet pilots led Egyptians on missions over the Sinai in 1968, and then an all-Soviet MiG-21 fighter unit arrived in December 1969, their Russian-language radio transmissions confirming their identity. In the skies over Egypt, Soviet and Israeli pilots fought each other. On July 30, 1970, for instance, Israeli jets shot down four Soviet MiG-21s but did not publicly identify the pilots as Soviet in order to avoid further inflaming the situation. Other Soviet actions also backfired. Their participation in the sinking of the Israeli warship Eilat helped persuade the United States to end its arms embargo on Israel in October 1967. 

Each vignette illustrates the authors’ point. Egypt began to prepare for another war with Israel after President Anwar Sadat signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union in 1971. Ginor and Remez further illustrate the partnership by noting that the operation to cross the Suez Canal and seize territory in Sinai was “done in full collaboration with our Soviet advisers” (p. 236). Indeed, a 1998 veterans celebration of the Soviet participation in the 1973 War claimed that in addition to 5,000 advisers, 1,500 Soviets “took part in combat” (p. 337). Perhaps the most explicit smoking gun for a Soviet war against Israel they point out is the Israeli tank captured by Soviet special forces in 1973; it now resides in a museum in Kubinka, Russia. 

The Soviets’ provocative and complex agenda also made an appearance in high politics. When they introduced SA-3 missiles and troops during talk of a ceasefire in March of 1970, Kissinger confronted Anatoli Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, and compared that to the surreptitious Soviet activity during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, getting the Soviet Union out of the Middle East became an American policy goal. Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, for his part, linked the question of whether the 1972 summit with the Americans would take place to “progress on the Middle East” (p. 240). The progress he wanted, a Palestinian state, was something that Nixon and Kissinger could not deliver and so this goal of Brezhnev’s was guaranteed to produce a mark against the United States.

These events are impressive in terms of conniving and deceit, and the authors lay bare the agendas by tracing the connections between them and what took place. In 1973 the Soviets wanted to be less involved in Egypt because the military deployments were expense, and more involved at the same time because managing a proxy war with Israel was in the national interest. Egypt and the Soviet Union spun a myth that the former was expelling the latter, when in fact, nothing of the sort took place. Ginor and Remez make their case by showing that Soviet planning to deploy replacement forces and house “expelled” dependents began well before the supposed expulsion took place. The Soviet navy redeployed marines to the eastern Mediterranean for possible use in the Suez Canal Zone, and the setting aside of hotel rooms in Kiev for dependents returning from Egypt was a mark of prior planning, not reacting to a sudden eviction by a client state. The authors infer that both states benefited from the ruse: the Soviets could inform their public that the costly expedition was no more and the Egyptians’ pride was aided because they were supposedly more on their own as a military force. 

Ginor and Remez suggest in another interesting finding that these staged disagreements between the Soviets and Egyptians were also designed to make Egypt appear weaker and less ready for war than it was. Judging from the responses of the Israelis, this disinformation effort worked. 

In explaining these activities the authors could have been more explicit in their conclusions. Their approach is to provide a series of examples to lead the reader to the verdicts they have reached, but at times this is too subtle. Ginor and Remez seem to want to avoid overstating their case, but in doing so they force the reader to pay very close attention to the details and connections within their narrative. 

This review is only a teaser regarding the historical findings the authors put forth; there are too many to address in a review of this length. Readers should not be put off by the taut characteristics of this work’s writing because that is a consequence of the nature of the sources the authors have at their disposal and their determination to put forth their case with precision. So many factors were so interconnected that the authors’ task was akin to transcribing a three-dimensional sphere onto a two-dimensional plane—not easy. The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973 deserves a wide readership. Historians of the wars, the region, détente, the Cold War, diplomacy, and military affairs will all find new information herein. Curious readers outside of political and academic circles will also find themselves scratching their heads with surprise after each page. Aficionados of the Cold War fiction of John LeCarre and Tom Clancy will experience a different kind of page-turner. Geopolitical actors would do well to read it because it would make them more aware that the scheming they should expect from political actors exceeds credulity.

Note

[1]. This review reflects the views of the author only and not those of the Department of Defense, the US Air Force, or Air University.  

Citation: Michael Weaver. Review of Ginor, Isabella; Remez, Gideon, The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973: The USSR's Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50860

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Considering H-War Net is a platform for serious academic discussion, and is frequented by a number of top military history researchers, I simply do not understand how can anybody here take books by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez seriously any more?

Surely enough, I haven't read their newest book (yet). However, alone from Mr. Weaver's review it's obvious that it was prepared along best traditions of 'Foxbats Over Dimona'. Back then, the authors never attempted to research in Egypt, and - based on 'evidence' they've provided in that book - even their research in Israel was less than 'half-hearted'. Otherwise, they could have quickly found out that the supposed 'Foxbats' (i.e. MiG-25Rs) overflying Israel in May-June 1967 were actually 'Fishbeds' (i.e. MiG-21F-13s) of the United Arab Republic Air Force (UARAF; official designation of the Egyptian air force in period 1958-1972). Foremost, that their pilots were Egyptians, and no Soviets.

A map of overflights in question was published in the book 'Like a Bolt out of Blue' in Israel (and in Hebrew only) already about 40 years ago (I apologise for not providing any direct links or better details on that publication: have only received an electronic copy, and this is missing pages citing the author and publisher). A reconstruction of 'operations' in question, plus a reconstruction of the Israeli map - further expanded through data collected in interviews with two of involved Egyptian pilots (both flew MiG-21F-13s from No. 45 Squadron, UARAF, which was based at Meliz AB in Sinai as of May-June 1967) - was published in the book 'Arab MiGs, Volume 2', back in 2011 (for details, see: http://www.harpia-publishing.com/galleries/AMV2/index.html). A summary of the resulting sub-chapter from that book, plus the map in question, can be found online in form of the article 'Joyriding Egyptian Pilots Helped provoke Six-Day War with Israel' (https://medium.com/war-is-boring/joyriding-egyptian-pilots-helped-to-pro...).

Sufficient to say: no, there were no MiG-25/Foxbats in Egypt as of May-June 1967 (indeed, the MiG-25R was still available in prototype form only as of the time). Not only interviews with Egyptian pilots involved in overflights of Israel of May-June 1967, but a few of official Egyptian documents that were released ever since (including the famous 'Document 44', which is the official result of post-June-1967-War investigation into reasons for the catastrophic defeat) are all perfectly clear: it's certain that no 'Foxbats' flew over Israel - neither at the time, nor ever after.

Moreover, if they would have ever come to the idea to research with help of such documents like 'Flight Manual for MiG-21F-13/PF' (translation of the same from Russian to English was prepared by the US Air Force as early as of 1964, probably on basis of flight manuals provided by the Iraqis, and is available online at a cost of some US$100), Ginor and Remez could have found out that these early MiG-21-variants were very much capable of operations at so-called 'dynamic altitudes', i.e. those at or around 59,000ft (18,000m), usually associated with MiG-25s. Interviews with Egyptian pilots could've taught them that the UARAF regularly trained such operations, too.

Re. Soviet pilots in Egypt of May-June 1967: yes, there were about 32 Soviet advisors assigned to the Egyptian military. Most of these were helping work up the units equipped with Tupolev Tu-16 bombers. In late 1966, few Soviets were assigned to the No. 20 'Araba' Squadron, equipped with MiG-19S', and one of them got killed in a clash with Dassault Mirage IIICJ interceptors of the Israeli air force over Sinai, in December that year (due to language barriers, the mission in question was flown by two Soviet pilots, guided by a Soviet controllers on the ground). But, that was about all.

Finally, a quick online research could've brought the authors of 'The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973' to Uri Bar-Noi's article 'The Soviet Union and the Six-Day War: Revelations From the Polish Archives', released by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in e-Dossier No. 8 (based on translation from the document 'On Soviet Policy Following the Israeli Aggression in the Middle East', by Comrade L. I. Brezhnev to the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, from 20 June 1967). Reading of the same would 'reveal' that, yes: Moscow felt guilty for provoking the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. However, it never had intention of inciting an armed conflict: that what happened once the Soviets (mis)informed Nasser about the supposed concentration of the IDF on the armistice lines to Syria, was a Soviet miscalculation, which then went out of control. I.e. that there was no Soviet conspiracy to 'destroy Israel'.

Perhaps something of that kind would not only turn out to be far less sensationalist, but directly contradict Ginor/Remez's agenda - and was thus concluded for 'unacceptable'...?

Fast forward to the times after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War - and thus back to the topic of Gideon/Remez's newest book...

Since the concept of research in Egypt, or at least with help of Egyptian sources (there is something called 'internet' nowadays; supposedly it helps establish contact to people in countries to which one might never travel, and quite quickly at that) - remains unknown to the authors in question, it's 100% certain they have never got the 'Document 44'. Arguably, at 1,200 pages (plus), and available in Arabic only, this is a hefty read. Nevertheless, and 'although of Egyptian origin', it is at least theoretically possible that it might be a useful source of information - especially when one is insinuating all sorts of Soviet conspiracies for destruction of Israel. If nothing else, it is at least distantly possible that Egyptian documentation is of some relevance for a conflict not only involving Egypt, but actually fought inside Egypt, too. Who can know...

Anyway, and between others, the Document 44 contains details on the Soviet air-bridge to Cairo, run starting with 12 June 1967, and delivering (between others), 93 MiG-17s and 65 MiG-21s to replace UARAF losses (for full list of Egyptian losses and replacements delivered from the USSR and former East Germany between June and August 1973, see Table 4, p203 in 'Arab MiGs, Volume 3': http://www.harpia-publishing.com/galleries/AMV3/index.html). Arguably, without knowing about such and similar details provided in that document, Ginor/Remez are back to guessing about exact numbers of Soviet advisors, or to what positions were these appointed, or about what exactly were they doing in, for example, the UARAF.

Unsurprisingly (at least along Mr. Weaver's review), Ginor and Remez are using novels by Soviet veterans as basis for their own fantasising about Soviet military personnel 'fighting alongside' Egyptians, 'and even in all-Soviet formations'.... In comparison, interviews with at least a handful of Egyptian veterans from that period (not to talk with former commanders of the UARAF, like late Air Marshal Mustafa Shalaby el-Hinnawy, or leading historian of the EAF/UARAF, late Air Vice Marshal Muhammed Okasha, who flew MiG-17Fs during the War of Attrition) would have shown them that Soviet advisors never flew combat sorties with the UARAF during the War of Attrition. Indeed, that this was impossible not only because of language barriers (I would love to hear Mrs. Ginor's and Mr. Remez's explanation about their ideas for logistics of such an enterprise), or because the Soviet advisors in Egypt of 1967-1969 period were strictly prohibited from flying over Sinai; even more so because their tactics was awfully obsolete. Namely, all the interviewed Egyptian veterans stress that the Soviets had no fresh combat experience, that they insisted on orthodox, obsolete formations and tactics, that they insisted on ignoring Egyptian complaints about poor quality of Soviet-made weapons, and that their planning regularly caused losses to the UARAF (extensive transcriptions from related interviews can be found in books 'Arab MiGs, Volume 4' [http://www.harpia-publishing.com/galleries/AMV4/index.html] and 'Arab MiGs, Volume 5' [http://www.harpia-publishing.com/galleries/AMV5/index.html]).

Of course, things did change once the Soviets deployed their own units in Egypt, starting in February 1970. However - and regardless if supportive for Ginor/Remez's fantasies, or not - it might be worth observation that this deployment (Operation Kavkaz) was launched in reaction of Israeli air strikes on targets in the Cairo area, Egyptian complaints about inadequacies of Soviet arms delivered by early 1970, and Nasser's demand for Soviets to deploy their units to bolster Egyptian air defences. With other words: not on Soviet initiative, but in reaction to Israel's decision to widen the scope of the War of Attrition in reaction to continuous Egyptian attacks over the Suez.

Even then, multiple investigations with help of Egyptian and Soviet/Russian sources have shown that the Soviets operated their units and aircraft in Egypt separately from those of the UARAF. Only Soviet SAM-units have had something like 'close cooperation' with units of the Air Defence Command (ADC) of Egypt: this went so far that when the Egyptians started pushing their 'missile wall' towards the Suez Canal, in June 1970, ADC's SA-2-units were accompanied by Soviet SA-3-units - and thus both of these were involved in subsequent clashes with the Israelis.

On the contrary, in an interview for Arab MiGs Vols. 4/5, late AVM Okasha clearly recalled how the only attempt at cooperation between Soviet flying units deployed in Egypt, and the UARAF, ended with the Egyptians losing two MiG-17Fs to Israeli Mirages - because the Soviet MiG-21s (planned to protect MiG-17s) failed to appear on time, and then failed to engage once Israelis caught with withdrawing Egyptians.

Finally, whatever Ginor/Remez 'suggest' about 'staged disagreements between the Soviets and Egyptians' is null and void - when one interviews Egyptian and Soviet veterans. That helps finding out that - another example (this time from 'Arab MiGs, Vol.5') - certain of differences between Soviet 'advisers' and Egyptian officers (primarily related to Soviet incompetence and inadequacies of arms delivered to Egypt) resulted in deaths. Declare me biased, but t least in my eyes, no 'judging from the responses of the Israelis' is a suitable replacement for 1st-hand sources.

Bottom line: Mr. Weaver's review of 'The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973', indicates a number of same, fundamental flaws by the authors like in the case of 'Foxbats over Dimona'. Unsurprisingly, the authors cannot get any more explicit in their conclusions, and it's only good if Mr. Weaver concluded they 'want to avoid overstating their case': presenting science-fiction - even if (seemingly) 'based on circumstantial evidence' - is simply no replacement for serious historical research.

'Arab' military history of the last 70 years is already one of most misreported topics in regards of military history, ever. This is little surprising considering that the mass of available publications are written without any consultation of first- or at least second-hand sources in the countries in question. The result is that there is more of wildest guessing, rumours, supposition and prejudice about 'Arab' militaries than about any other topic; indeed, even national markings applied on diverse of 'Arab MiGs' are nearly always misreported, while the public perception about their operational service is reminiscent of medieval maps (and/or Globes) where territories unknown to researchers were left blank, perhaps marked as ‘Terra Incognita’, or decorated with all sorts of mythical monsters.

This topic thus needs no additional guessing - but much more serious research.

Tom Cooper
Vienna
Austria

We respect Mr. Cooper as an aviation historian, and indeed have quoted his publications (some co-authored with David Nicolle) -- though occasionally in disagreement. We regret that his response to Prof. Weaver’s review of our book "The Soviet-Israeli War 1967-1973" does not reflect the same attitude toward our work, as exemplified by his prefatory statement “I haven't read their newest book (yet). However…”

Since he chose not to await reading the present book before panning it, Mr. Cooper goes on instead to dismiss our previous book, "Foxbats over Dimona "(2007) and to impugn our research overall in the most derogatory terms. He is, of course, fully entitled to disagree with our findings, but as "Foxbats" has been available for over a decade, readers have had ample time to evaluate it. Some distinguished readers have assessed it more kindly than Mr. Cooper: in addition to Prof. Weaver, who calls it "pathbreaking," they include the jury that awarded "Foxbats" the silver medal in the inaugural book prize competition of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the reviewer for "Foreign Affairs" journal, who selected it as a book of the year in military history.

"Foxbats" – and a follow-up essay that we published a year later, http://www.rubincenter.org/2008/09/remez-2008-09-02/ -- present detailed evidence on the matters that Mr. Cooper raised; the essay even quotes an explicit confirmation of Soviet MiG-25 flights over Israel in 1967 from the spokesman of the Russian Air Force. So we will leave it to readers to evaluate the strength of our argument in general. Let us just address one example in which Mr. Cooper simply misrepresents "Foxbats." He writes “A map of overflights in question was published in the book "Like a Bolt out of Blue" in Israel (and in Hebrew only) already about 40 years ago,” insinuating that we ignored this map and that it disproves our thesis.

Well, that very map is reproduced in "Foxbats" (p. 128), with the permission of Danny Shalom, the author of "Bolt" (which – by the way -- appeared in 2002, not “40 years ago”). We have spent hours with Mr. Shalom – an eminent authority on Israeli aviation history – analyzing this and other episodes. We can assure Mr. Cooper that Mr. Shalom takes our research quite seriously, as witness his quoting us in his subsequent book on the air aspect of the 1969-1970 War of Attrition, "Phantoms over Cairo" (also in Hebrew, which language we actually can read).

One final note, addressing Mr. Cooper’s statement that “interviews with Egyptian pilots involved in overflights of Israel of May-June 1967 … are all perfectly clear: it's certain that no 'Foxbats' flew over Israel - neither at the time, nor ever after.” The interview that Mr. Cooper alludes to was published after "Foxbats" appeared, but the book already contained (p. 130) the detail that when Soviet MiG-25s operated out of Egypt in 1971-72 (an undisputed fact), Egyptian MiG-21s “covered” their takeoffs and landings and so may have escorted them into Israeli airspace as well, besides carrying out sorties of their own – and the same pattern was presumably tried out in 1967. Our evidence that the model later known as MiG-25 was already then flown by Soviet pilots over Israel includes public testimony in the United States by one of them. As the URL for this source has been changed since we provided it in the book, here's the present one: https://www.goefoundation.com/eagles/biographies/v/269/Vybornov-Aleksandr-I .

Mr. Cooper’s assertion that Soviet MiG-25s never flew over Israel is just flat-out erroneous; besides the 1967 instance, it contradicts not only multiple Soviet accounts but also -- from the Israeli and US side -- contemporary official statements and press reports from 1971-2, as well as subsequently declassified documents. All these types of evidence are abundantly cited in several chapters of "The Soviet-Israeli War."

So we disagree with Mr. Cooper, but decline to engage in ad hominem invective like his. As for the rest, let the readers judge. Their civil, collegial comments on our research, pro or con, are always welcome!

Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez
Associate Fellows, Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem