Russian Roulette

by Stanley Karnow | October 27, 1973

During his US tour last spring Leonid Brezhnev heralded a fresh era in Soviet-American friendship as he embraced Wall Street bankers, hugged Hollywood actors and flattered Richard Nixon. Now, by encouraging and aiding the Arabs against Israel and thereby raising the spectre of renewed superpower confrontation, the Russians have moved from grins to grimaces. Their turnabout, it seems to me, can be explained in a single word—priorities. Detente in their estimation is a short-term exercise to which they can always return, but, as they see it, the improvement of their position in the Middle East is a long-range objective they cannot afford to neglect. Thus they have decided to shelve rapprochement with the administration, for the moment, in order to reinforce their influence among the Arabs. This strategy reflects both their atavistic preoccupation with their southern flank and their more recent drive to strengthen themselves against Chinese inroads into South Asia. At the same time they hope to curb American political influence in the region, and in the process enfeeble the US by depriving it of oil. The Soviet leaders have embarked upon a policy in which, they calculate, the risks are low and the potential gains immense. And the chances are good that their gamble will pay off.

There is little doubt that the Russians were committed to the Arab offensive before it began, though they may have acceded to the Egyptians and Syrians rather than urged them to open hostilities. Their awareness that war was imminent was mirrored in their withdrawal of advisers from Syria on the eve of the conflict. It was shown in the speed with which they were able to initiate a complicated airlift of military supplies to Cairo, reportedly from a staging zone in Hungary, and in their arrangements for flights over Yugoslavia. More significantly Brezhnev counterpointed temperate statements designed for US consumption with appeals to the Arab nations to join in the battle against Israel. "Syria and Egypt must not remain alone in the struggle against a treacherous enemy," he told Algerian President Houari Boumediene soon after the war broke out, and similar messages simultaneously were sent from Moscow to other Arab leaders. By the middle of last week, despite strenuous efforts by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to induce the Kremlin to cooperate in reaching a ceasefire, the Russians were still exhorting the Arabs to continue the fight and promising to assist them "in every way." These pleas, coupled with the fact that Moscow did nothing to restrain the Arabs, plainly violate Brezhnev's pledges to Nixon "to create conditions which promote the reduction of tensions." Suddenly that pledge had taken second place to more urgent Soviet imperatives.

Some specialists advance the theory that all this indicates a rise in the importance of Marshal Andrei Grechko, the defense minister, Mikhail Suslov, Moscow's chief ideologue, Yuri Andropov, the head of the secret police and other hawks who have been consistently cool to the idea of a reconciliation with the US, on the grounds that peace and Pepsi-Cola are secret imperialist weapons. According to this theory two main factors combined to give the hardliners an advantage over Brezhnev and more restrained elements. First, they could plausibly argue that the probable setback to US trade and credit concessions in the Congress meant that Brezhnev's much-vaunted reconciliation with Nixon was ephemeral. Secondly, the success of Arab forces in the opening phase of the war bolstered their case for a larger commitment to the conflict. In the estimation of Kremlinologists the new weight of the hawks was also visible in the snub by the Soviet leaders of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who had gone to Moscow after much preparation in hopes of settling minor differences left over from World War II. The brutal treatment accorded Tanaka might serve to remind Americans, as it did the Japanese, that Soviet eagerness for economic benefits is not necessarily matched by Russian concessions on vital diplomatic and security questions.

The Kremlin hawks, in my opinion, may have been further emboldened by Kissinger's overt conduct after the war started. The administration has been chronically sensitive to criticism by Henry Jackson and likeminded senators ever since it initiated its overtures to the Soviet Union, and this sensitivity heightened as it became clear in the Middle East that Moscow's devotion to the new "structure of peace" might be more rhetorical than real. Worried by the Senate critics and also anxious to leave himself room for diplomatic maneuvering, Kissinger seemed to bend over backward to minimize Soviet involvement in the war. On the Monday after the conflict began he warned that "detente cannot survive irresponsibility in any area, including the Middle East." But on Friday, despite evidence of substantial shipments of military supplies to Cairo, he still declined to characterize Soviet behavior as "irresponsible" and merely declared that Russian actions were "not helpful." He also called on the Congress to delay the trade bill lest some of its provisions irritate Moscow. Read in the Kremlin, his statements could have been seen as weakness. In any event neither his public mildness nor his presumably tougher private communications got quick results.

To appreciate their present policy it is necessary to understand that the Russians have traditionally focused on the Middle East in their quest for safe frontiers. After World War II they brought pressure to bear on Turkey and Iran, and when that failed in the face of US resistance they vaulted into Egypt, Syria and Iraq to establish spheres of influence that, to Soviet distress, have often depended more on material aid than any sincere Arab sympathy for Moscow. Within the past decade, the Russians have also been striving to fortify themselves in the Middle East as a way of securing their position in South Asia, where their dispute with China is intense. The extent to which this dispute has spilled over into the Middle East can be seen in the rivalry in the region between Indian and Pakistani diplomats acting as surrogates for the Russians and Chinese. The coup d'etat in Afghanistan in July is believed as well to have been tailored to fit Soviet requirements. More recently, meanwhile, the Russians have been attracted by the notion of wooing the Arabs in order to divert oil from the American market.

Not so long ago a conservative Arab ruler like King Faisal of Saudi Arabia maintained solid ties with the US, a huge market for his enormous oil reserves. But the rising American need for oil combined with the growth of Japan and Western Europe as alternative buyers have created shortages that have turned petroleum into a bludgeon to be wielded for political purposes. In addition Faisal and other feudal sheikhs of the Persian Gulf have felt constrained to become political activists in order to undercut Arab radicals in their countries, and the obvious target for their new militancy is Israel, Perceiving these developments, the Russians estimated that they could drive a wedge between these Arabs and the US by doing their utmost to contribute to a new conflict against Israel, one in which leaders like Faisal could not stay neutral. In short the Soviet aim has been to promote Arab unity directed against the US in the expectation that American oil imports would be curtailed. To the Russians, consequently, the outcome of the war is secondary as long as Arab hostility toward the US continues after the smoke of battle has cleared away. The success of this strategy must already be apparent to the Kremlin in the White House's recent decision to ration heating oil, jet and diesel fuel, and kerosene. The Soviet leaders must have felt reassured last week when Melvin Laird said that he is "urging everyone to take their suits off and buy sweaters."

The Russians have zigzagged through good and bad moments, and, it has been argued, opportunities to negotiate at least a partial settlement in the region were lost during their periods of decline. In the summer of 1972 their deteriorating relationship with the Kremlin prompted the Egyptians to expel the Soviet advisers, and that dramatic event had an immediate impact on the situation in the area. The popularity of President Anwar Sadat soared as Egyptians welcomed a return to a spirit of nationalistic self-reliance. Simultaneously the Soviet presence no longer presented an obstacle to possible compromise. But the Israelis remained cautious. They refused to believe that the Russians had really pulled out, and they continued to build an even stronger military machine. In addition, as the Israeli analyst Yair Evron suggests, they hesitated to admit to the Soviet withdrawal out of fear that it would lead to reduced US support for them. So they refused to offer concessions to Sadat, and he, in his disappointment, swung back to the Kremlin for renewed help. The Russians returned prudently at first, carefully refraining from deliveries of sophisticated weapons to the Egyptians, partly in order to avoid costly commitments and perhaps to lessen the danger of confrontation with the US at a time when they were engaged in economic bargaining with the Nixon administration. But by spring Sadat apparently felt strong enough to threaten a resumption of hostilities, disclosing in an interview that the Russians "are providing us now with everything that is possible for them to supply." Soviet supplies tipped the scales in the present war, and the Arabs can now negotiate with greater confidence. But whatever the conference table yields, the Russians have clearly emerged as the major outside power in the Middle East. And the high hopes that the embryonic Soviet-American detente could keep the peace have evaporated.

This article originally ran in the October 27, 1973 issue of the magazine.

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