In 2004, a student at Bar-Ilan University discovered a fascinating episode that the Israeli public is not that familiar with: a secret war between Israeli and Soviet forces during the War of Attrition in 1970. An interview with a Soviet army veteran living in Siberia in a local paper about a Soviet-Israeli battle caught the eye of the student, Boris Dolin.
He subsequently came across more and more testimonies from the Russian side, and decided to expand the search. “I scoured the internet for former Soviet soldiers who fought against us that accursed summer, and I flew to Moscow to meet with some of them,” he says. They were waiting for him at a club for Soviet veterans in a Moscow suburb, crowded into a small office. Some of them gave him memoirs they had written. Others spoke with him about their experiences. To his surprise, he learned that they held an annual reunion, with representatives from the Egyptian Embassy and the Russian Defense Ministry in attendance, but when he tried to join the event, he got the distinct impression that he would be an unwanted guest.
He also went to the Israel National Archives, where he sat and went through crates packed with documents, searching for testimonies from a half-century ago in Israelis sources.
When the dots connected, he had uncovered an episode highly relevant to recent developments in the Middle East. While the mostly forgotten War of Attrition pitted Israel and Egypt against each other, in the summer of 1970 Israel found itself in direct confrontation with a superpower for the first time.
“Soviet missiles took off in a storm of smoke and sand and turned toward Israeli Phantoms, which were tearing through the skies. The Israeli air force hit the Soviet units on the ground hard,” Dolin read, completely taking him aback.
The research that Dolin conducted for his master’s degree at Bar-Ilan is now being published as a book (in Hebrew): “The Suez Wall – The Story of the Secret War between Israel and the Soviet Union” (Kinneret Zemora Press).
What were Russian troops doing in Egypt that summer? The Russian force was deployed there to defend Moscow’s interests in the Middle East during the Cold War. Specifically, Russia wished to monitor from close up the American submarines and aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Moscow’s ultimate objective was to be able to destroy the American missile launchers before Moscow itself was destroyed by sea-based nuclear missiles the Americans would launch, should doomsday arrive. In 1970, at the height of another war between Israel and Egypt, Russia began to worry that Israel could wipe out the Russian military presence in Egypt and thereby hurt its ability to neutralize the American nuclear threat.
The Russian solution was to block the Israeli air force from the Egyptian skies by installing surface-to-air missile batteries along the Suez Canal.
“The War of Attrition evoked an Israeli response that threatened the Soviet stronghold in Egypt… The Soviet Union hastened to defend it,” says Dolin. who was born in Kiev in 1981 and moved to Israel with his parents as a child. “To the Soviets, the threat of a foreign power – Israel – that was close to a hostile superpower – the United States – began to hang over their facilities, and “to threaten, to some extent, the homeland’s survival,” he adds.
At first the Russians pressed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to calm things down. When he didn’t comply, the Russians relayed a threatening message to Israel, demanding that it halt its airstrikes in Egypt. “The Soviet government views this assault as a provocative act that could have very serious ramifications. These sorts of aggressive operations indicate that the Israeli government is continuing on a highly dangerous path, evidently without understanding where its reckless actions could lead,” read the Russian message. “All responsibility for the ramifications of these actions… will fall on the Israeli government.”
Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan informed the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the problem. “The Russians… are in the vanguard of the Egyptian forces fighting us. The Russians also have casualties because they are in positions that are just 200 meters from us. This situation makes me sad. I wouldn’t offer my condolences… but if they are hit, there has to be a reaction,” he said.
The reaction was not long in coming. On June 30, 1970, Israeli Phantom jets, considered the most advanced of their kind in the world, were downed for the first time by Egyptian anti-aircraft missiles. Three Israeli airmen were taken prisoner in Egypt and one was rescued by the Israeli army in an operation that could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie.
The first plane to be shot down was contained pilot Rami Harpaz and navigator Eyal Ahikar. The two ejected in time, and fell into Egyptian captivity. Both died last year. Then the Phantom flown by pilot Yitzhak Pir and navigator Yair David was shot down. “The missile exploded very close to the plane and apparently tore off part of the tail. The plain started to spin, I had no control over it,” Pir said later. He, too, was taken prisoner. David managed to hide and was rescued from enemy territory by helicopter. Some of the POWs later gained fame for the translation they made of “The Hobbit” while in captivity.
Russian soldiers, who had been deployed with the anti-aircraft missile batteries, were the ones who downed the Israeli planes. “The nightmare scenario came to pass, and Israel was incapable of withstanding the threat. The Phantom failed against the Soviet missile battery,” Dolin writes in his book, which also details the celebrations by Russian officer Capt. Valerianus Malyauka, who became a hero for being the first one to shoot down an Israeli Phantom. In a picture taken at the time, he is seen standing alongside the wreckage of the plane, one foot atop a piece of the metal.
A month later, on July 30, things escalated when there was an aerial dogfight between Israeli and Soviet planes. This time, the Israeli air force came out on top. “The jet engines roared, excited shouts filled the communications network and the missiles that were fired pursued their targets,” Dolin writes. “The Soviets were in trouble, they couldn’t get the Israelis in their sights and discovered that Phantoms or Mirages were sitting on their tails,” he goes on. The battle lasted six minutes and by the end of it, five Soviet MiGs had crashed in the Egyptian desert. Three Soviet pilots were killed and two ejected “before their plane became a heap of scorched metal.”
But failure sooned followed this success. On August 3, Israeli air force pilots once again encountered the Soviet enemy. Konstantin Popov, commander of one of the anti-aircraft missile batteries, fired at the plane flown by pilot Yigal Shohat and navigator Moshe Goldwasser. The plane lost control and went into a spin. The pair ejected. When they got near the ground, they were sprayed with machine gun fire. Was Egypt or the Soviets behind this? The answer remains unknown to Israel. Shohat was wounded and taken prisoner. Goldwasser was also taken prisoner, tortured and died in captivity.
Right after the first plane was shot down, a missile exploded near the plane of pilot Raanan Neeman and navigator Yoram Romem. Neeman’s hand was shattered but the two managed to return safely to Israel.
The two […] commanders who were responsible for these achievements against the Israeli air force later received the Soviet Union’s highest honor. The ceasefire that was signed a few days later on August 7 ostensibly ended the War of Attrition but, for Dolin, it really brought the curtain down on another war. He says, “Contrary to the official version, the ceasefire was not an Israeli victory over Egypt. Quite the opposite, it was an expression of Israeli defeat at the hands of an effective and determined Soviet force.” Dolin adds, “Facing the crushing power of the Soviet Union, Israel could only display relatively limited capabilities. We found ourselves up against a giant, and without a real military solution.”
The bottom line, he says, is that the Russians managed to keep away the Israeli air force and created the circumstances for the launching of the Yom Kippur War three years later. “In 1973, the Egyptian Army crossed the Canal thanks to Russia’s advanced aerial defenses,” he explains. He also notes that, luckily for Israel (and perhaps for the whole world), the two sides, Israel and Russia, were careful in 1970 to limit scope of the confrontation. It was essentially a “secret war.”
Official acknowledgement that the Israeli and Soviet armed forces were engaged in combat would have compelled the Soviet Union to employ its full capabilities against Israel, which would have obliged the United States in turn to respond; the limited clashes could have quickly evolved into a war between superpowers. However, “as long as the crisis remained under wraps and kept far from the headlines, the Soviets could afford to pursue only limited objectives. The Americans could pretend that nothing was happening and stay out of the crisis. And Israel, which knew it would be fighting a losing battle against the Soviets, only had to deal with a small Soviet force and not with the entire might of the Communist empire,” Dolin writes. “The decision-makers in Jerusalem had to deal with an unwinnable confrontation, that could get out of proportion and escalate into a crisis with existential ramifications,” Dolin says. He says if Moscow would have decided to use greater force against Israel on a wider scale, “we wouldn’t have been able to stop it.” The battle would have been “lost from the start.”
This war, of course, has an aspect that is relevant to Israel in 2020. The geographical arena is different this time – north rather than south, Syria rather than Egypt, but once again Moscow is taking the side of Israel’s adversaries and establishing a military stronghold near the Israeli border. “The Russians are here as part of a much bigger game, and at the same time they find themselves getting entangled in a local swamp,” Dolin says. Just as in the War of Attrition, Russia today has deployed an advanced air defense system that limits the Israeli air force’s freedom of operation.
There is one significant difference. Today’s Moscow, under Putin, is in direct contact with Jerusalem and coordination between the two countries is maintained. The Moscow of 1970 had no diplomatic ties with Israel following the Six-Day War and threatened Israel directly. Still, says Dolin, “The ramifications of that secret war between Jerusalem and Moscow continues to reverberate, as do the dilemmas that it raised.”
The questions that were asked then are also relevant today. As Dolin explains in his book, the list includes the following: What are the limits of endurance when you are facing a superpower? At what point do you choose to use force against it? What do you do to ensure it doesn’t turn its full force against you? And what is left for you to do when your plans fail, your planes are shot down, you are just one step ahead of disaster and your friends have abandoned you to your fate?
Dolin also believes that Israel needs to improve its understanding of the Russian mentality in this regard. What was the source of the Russian hostility towards Israel and why did it cooperate with Israel’s enemies? Dolin thinks that Israel didn’t have a good grasp of Moscow’s motivations, and recommends that our leaders learn from the past. He says that Israel, which at the time was preoccupied with the ongoing conflict with all of its neighbors, did not realize that the Russians were thinking and acting in different, global terms that encompassed nations and continents, rather than local ones. In other words, Russia’s standing by Egypt then, and by Syria now, is due to more complex interests in a much wider context and has nothing to do with the Arab-Jewish conflict.