Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)
Exploring the Six Day War’s Soviet Angle
Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Yale University Press, 2007, 287 pp.
Reviewed by Rolf Behrens
In 1967, the Soviet Union deliberately instigated the crisis that led to the Six Day War. As part of a grand design, the USSR also planned to bomb and invade Israel with its own strategic bombers and naval forces. This is what Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez claim in their book whose publication coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the war.
According to the authors’ thesis, when the Soviets learned of Israel’s intention to produce an atomic bomb in November 1965, they decided to prevent the Jewish state from acquiring this weapon. Consequently, it was decided to spark the flames of war in the region; to draw Israel into carrying out a strike against Egypt, thus turning it into an aggressor in world public opinion; and then to seize the moment and bomb the Israeli reactor.
The details of this conspiracy were laid down in a plan that Soviet defense minister Andrei Grechko and Egyptian vice-president Abdel Hakim Amer agreed upon during the latter’s visit to Moscow in November 1966. The plan foresaw Soviet strategic bombers being repainted in Egyptian colors and destroying the Israeli reactor under false flag. A small-scale landing of Soviet naval forces in Haifa was also planned so as to tip the scale in Egypt’s favor. Meanwhile, the Egyptians would lure Israel into the trap by implementing the agreed-upon steps of: remilitarizing Sinai, expelling UNEF (the United Nations Emergency Force), and closing the Straits of Tiran. This sequence of events was to be initiated at a secret signal: the warning of an impending Israeli attack against Syria by Soviet officials.
When the Egyptians got carried away by their initial successes at the end of May 1967 and intended to strike Israel first despite the plan, the Soviets pulled out their hidden ace to placate them: a prototype of the ultra-secret MiG-25 reconnaissance plane, “Foxbat” in NATO parlance, was sent on its maiden mission, flying over the Israeli reactor in Dimona and thus proving the seriousness of the Soviets’ commitment. Only the swiftness and extent of the eventual Israeli preemptive strike prevented the actual implementation of the Soviet war plan: for lack of intact airbases, fighter escort, and any chance of success the Red Army’s missions were canceled at the last moment. Instead, extremely successful measures were implemented to cover up the existence of the plan.
An Unorthodox Approach
This, of course, runs counter to all orthodox Western historiography about the Six Day War, according to which it was a war that no one wanted, a product of errors, misunderstandings, and mutual miscalculations on the part of Egypt, Israel, and other players involved. Ginor and Remez are unlikely revisionists: a down-to-earth husband-and-wife team, they “fell into this role…like Alice into her rabbit hole” (2) by stumbling upon an article about a Soviet naval officer who self-allegedly was to take part in a landing on the Israeli coast in 1967.
What ensued were more than six years of intense and determined research in which the two authors began to view the all-too-known story of the war from a dramatically different angle. Their own skepticism about their findings shines through their writing in the first few chapters and adds to the authors’ credibility. But in the course of the writing, the confidence in their unusual thesis grows markedly-and sometimes leads them to far-reaching conclusions that do not always seem to be backed by actual facts.
Take, for example, the claim that attracted the most media attention and gave the book its name: that the Soviet Union sent its newest and most secret experimental jet on a field trial over Dimona. Using wars as an experimental ground for secret weapon systems is not unusual. The U.S. F-117 stealth fighter, for example, was first used in the Panama invasion of 1989, several months before the plane was officially disclosed to the public. But in the case of the MiG-25’s mission, the authors’ proof is inadequate. Two facts led them to believe in the secret flights in the first place: (a) that neither Israeli fighter jets nor missiles were able to intercept the plane during the overflights of 17 May and 26 May 1967, and (b) that an online CV of a former Soviet air force general says he flew reconnaissance missions over Israel in that very plane in 1967.
Both conclusions are less than convincing. In almost all prior literature, the flights of 17 and 26 May are attributed to Egyptian MiG-21s. And there is really no reason why these jets should not have been capable of the feat: the performance levels that Ginor and Remez (127) give for the intruders are in full accordance with the capabilities of a MiG-21. The fact that Israeli fighter jets were unable to intercept the reconnaissance planes is also not entirely surprising: since the aircraft in question, the Mirage III, is one with a very similar range of performance to the MiG-21, it might not have been possible to catch up with the intruders in the short time it takes to get from Egypt just over the border to Dimona and escape to safety.
Another aspect is striking: although the authors do mention that only one year earlier an Iraqi MiG-21 pilot had defected to Israel with his plane, thus providing Israel and the West with decisive intelligence, they fail to heed the deep shock this must have caused in the Soviet Union. It is thus more than dubious whether the Red Army would really have risked one of its most coveted assets in such a dangerous environment, even more so since the MiG-25 was still in an experimental stage, lacking technical reliability and running on engines with a known tendency to overheat at high speeds. Nine years later the Soviets’ nightmare came true when a Soviet “Foxbat” pilot defected to Japan.
One reason for the Soviets to risk their secret plane was, according to Ginor and Remez, for it to provoke an Israeli missile launch, enabling the jet’s cameras to film the missiles’ flight path while not being threatened because of its own high flight altitude. This version is also less than plausible: later reconnaissance versions of the MiG-25 were only carrying photo, not film, cameras. It is therefore very dubious that an early prototype could have been fitted with film cameras.
The bio of Aleksandr I. Vybornov was originally published on the website of the U.S. Air University (the link Ginor and Remez provide in their footnotes does not work, as is frequently the case with dated websites). It claims that:
He was placed in charge of training for all air defense pilots in 1965, and two years later, was identified to command a possible Soviet Air Force deployment in support of Arab air forces in the Middle East. In Egypt to study the feasibility of the plan, Vybornov flew 12 operational sorties in three months. These sorties were so sensitive that the Soviet Ministry of Defense approved each sortie. He twice flew reconnaissance missions over Israel in a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 “Foxbat” and was again decorated with the “Order of the Red Banner.”
The text does not claim that Vybornov flew his missions shortly before or during the Six Day War. In fact, as the authors point out, a writer who had interviewed Vybornov put the time of his stay in Egypt after the war. But the authors insist it must have been during the war, since Vybornov claimed he had witnessed an Israeli attack on an Egyptian airfield (86, 131). Given the fact that again no exact date is given, he might very well also have witnessed an Israeli aerial attack in the opening phase of the War of Attrition, right after the Six Day War. But at this stage, the authors have seemingly abandoned their early skepticism.
Another example of far-reaching conclusions on the basis of soft evidence is the so-called “Finnish document,” a central piece of evidence that the authors claim “shows that the USSR’s premeditated moves included a break of diplomatic relations with Israel after the latter was to be provoked into a first strike against Egypt”(157). The document in question is a letter from the Soviet Foreign Ministry asking the Finnish embassy in Moscow to forward “the original of the letter from the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, A. N. Kosygin, addressed to the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Mr. Levi Eshkol, dated 5 June 1967” (154).
The date on the document is not specified (“< > June 1967”). The note rightfully caught the authors’ eyes since Moscow cut off diplomatic relations with Israel only on 10 June 1967, asking Finland to represent it diplomatically from that day on. Although the document is certainly interesting, it does not necessarily prove beyond any doubt-as the authors claim-that Moscow had a premeditated plan to break off contact with Israel. A potential different explanation that the authors do not entertain at all is the possibility that, just as the note states, the Soviets asked the Finnish embassy to forward the original of the letter-after having sent it as a cable to Israel on 5 June.
There are other instances in which the authors do not prove conclusively that the Soviet Union instigated the crisis and war of 1967. In the first place, they fail to explain why the Soviet Union was so afraid of an Israeli A-bomb that it was allegedly willing to risk a potentially fatal military confrontation with the United States. It is also unclear why the intended naval landing was so amazingly ragged in its conception and planning and why, after the war, the Egyptians saw the USSR as their only possible savior after they had been let down so badly by the very same superpower during the war.
Although the book does not convince on most counts, Ginor and Remez deserve credit for their extensive research into a hitherto neglected aspect of the Six Day War: that the Soviet Union was a player with its own policy and strategic objectives. The authors have unearthed a multitude of information and hints that point to a more direct involvement of the USSR in the Middle East War of 1967 than had been previously thought. It is the reviewer’s position that the evidence at hand does not support some of the authors’ main conclusions. Nevertheless, it may be better to reserve judgment for the present in the hope that new and more conclusive evidence will in due course be discovered. This should not detract from the fact that Remez and Ginor have produced a work of pioneering research that will influence the future development of the field.
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Rolf Behrens is a program assistant at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Israel Office in Jerusalem.