Writing of the 1973 war Vladislav Zubok, The Failed Empire wrote, “He ( President Sadat) kept the politburo and Soviet representatives in the dark- although, of course, the KGB, and military must have known about the preparations. As with the North Vietnamese earlier, the Kremlin leaders could not control or restrain their foreign clients.” Zubok’s book is a highly acclaimed work, especially by the Western elites, and as a well written analysis of the Soviet dissolution, but also it conforms to a rational world, in which even the Hitlers, Stalins, Saddams, the Ebrahim Raisis and now Putin, will ultimately bow to reality ( as the Western Elite see it). Unfortunately, the Russian world of reality is far different from the that of the Western world. In one of many sectors, the Russian political and military world view sees Russia in near eternal conflict with the Western world, embodied by NATO as the eternal enemy. As to turns out….Zubok’s view was very wrong.
The Russians were not restraining or even trying to restrain the Egyptians in the 1973 war. They were , in fact, urging the Egyptians to advance further in the Sinai, to carry on the war, and had thousands of advisors, and Russian units assisting the Egyptians in that effort. It was the Egyptian leaders who put the brakes on any further enlargement of the war. Sadat was fearful of the lessons of the 67 war and the possible loss of the entire Egyptian force.
The historical revisionist books have turned to the more comfortable view of disobedient clients, Egypt and Syria, being disciplined by cautious Russian leadership, striving to contain the war. Not so writes, Isabella Ginor and Giddeon Remez, in two powerful and carefully researched books, Foxbats over Dimona:The Soviets Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War and The Soviet-Israeli War196-1973: The USSR’s Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict.
So how did the authors arrive at such a drastic revisionist history of the 1967 and 1973 war? Mostly because of the rise of Russian veterans organizations who felt they were being forgotten by the people for their sacrifices in the forever wars fought in the Middle East, not just Afghanistan, but also Egypt, Chechnya, Syria, and Africa, such as Angola, Many served in the sweltering heat of Iraq and Yemen, as well. The Soviets, always secretive, did not publicly recognize these veterans but with the limited openness of the Gorbachov and Yeltsin regimes, letters, diaries, memoirs, and books by these veterans surfaced in the West. Books like Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko, and Afghanistan, A Russian Soldier’s Story , by Vladislav Tamarov, revealed the ineptness and corruption of the Soviet military machine.
The authors of The Soviet-Israeli war 1967-1973, scrutinized these new sources and discovered a massive trove of information which, insofar as the Russian involvement, totally changed the conventional histories of the 67-73 war. The conventional histories written by Yevgeny Primikov, ( Russia and the Arabs) and the tons of books written by Western and Egyptian diplomats and historians, especially Henry Kissinger ,and Mohamed Hasanein Heikel, as well as the key figures in the wars, including Anwar Sadat, General Saad al Shazly, and many others all pointed to the same story, massive Russian military assistance, but only very limited Russian active support with regular units. These narrations were echo chambers and not factually correct.
The Soviet desire to keep their interventionism secret, and the Egyptian military’s understandable efforts to credit their forces with the entire success of the Suez crossing were key factors in the well told- but often wrong- histories of the war. Some, of the many key factors of the conventional treatment of the war were overturned in by the new information.
One of the more startling facts surfaced is that the widely conventional belief in the “expulsion of Russian advisors” in 1972 was not true. Nor was their a rift in Soviet-Egyptian relations to cause the “expulsion.” The Russians withdrew certain Russian units from Egypt in 72 but not the advisors, who from the beginning, remained with Egyptians units, continuing training and sometimes in front leading right up to the Crossing of the Suez. They did not venture across the Canal ( at least none were captured) but kept up active war support until the war ended. It did not end because of Soviet constraints on the Egyptians but because Sadat allegedly got cold feet and worried that the Egyptian army would be trapped and wiped out as in 1967 war . In fact, the Soviets were urging the Egyptians to go for the Sinai Mitla passes which were the main geographical and terrain obstacles to invading Israeli itself.
The Soviet weapons, especially the air defense , were highly successful in countering the best weaponry of the US and Israel. This created a pre-condition for the Egyptians and Soviets to agree to the cessation of the offset artillery and air war along the canal 68-70.In short The Russians wanted to redress the humiliation of 1967 in which the Egyptians tried to pin the blame on inferior Russian war equipment.The Russians would not allow another Egyptian defeat…not for Egypt’s sake for rather of the prestige of the Soviet Union.
I visited Egypt in 1978 with the US Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the advent of the hot phase of cordial US-Egyptian relations, almost humorous in the efforts of the Egyptians to incur our favor, including playing Fiddler on the Roof songs on the Hotel music systems. While visiting their G2 Hq. I was shown the beautifully hand drawn Egyptian diagrams of the Israeli side of the canal, the Canal berms , land mines, and the petroleum outlets for igniting flames on would be canal crossers. The Egyptians knew where they were and Frogmen turned them off prior to the crossing. But quite tellingly, midst the Arabic script writing I noticed a number of Cyrillic notes on the diagrams.
The Soviets were deeply involved in the planning and orchestration of the canal crossing from day one. ” The writers sum up…” we found the Soviet input in all these junctures to have been proactive, purposeful, and even aggressive in encouraging and supporting Egypt’s military challenge to Israel, rather than a moderate and restraining influence as it was almost universally characterized.”
None of the above detracts from the courage and capability of the Egyptians to assimilate modern equipment, train up to standard, and prosecute the war with determination and verve. They should be proud.
The above is a cautionary tale. We hear, read and see every every day lots of information ( propaganda?) depicting Ukrainians knowing out Russian tanks and shooting aircraft out of the sky. What we are not getting is any reliable information from the other side. President Zelensky’s impassioned pleas for more help do not seem to square with the experts positive analyses of the war. So in the Russian style of war we could be in phase one with phase two to follow in a couple of months or years. As in the Soviet-Israeli War one of the reasons for the massive Russian assistance Egypt was the humiliation of Russian arms in the 67 war. Like Syria in 2014, Egyptian success was entangled in Russian honor and Brezhnev’s monumental ego. Putin is even more egomaniacal. See The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen.