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Origins of a Misnomer: The “Expulsion” of the Soviet “Advisers” from Egypt, 1972

The most surprising aspect of this paper and presentation is that it should have interested the organizers of this conference in the first place. The various components of the term and concept "the expulsion of Soviet (or even all Soviet) advisers from Egypt on July 18, 1972 have long since been laid to rest separately, so that a claim that nothing of the sort ever occurred should ostensibly have been old hat. And yet the whole seems to be more durable than the sum of its parts, and the concept has become so firmly embedded in conventional historiography that most practitioners have hardly been confused by the mere fact that for years it has been untenable. The latest example is John Gaddis’s authoritative history of the Cold War, which still speaks of 15,000 advisers being expelled from Egypt.

Let us just recap a partial list of the discredited components in this concept:

  1. The mass evacuation of Soviet advisers' dependents, with or without the advisers themselves, on the eve of Egypt's cross-canal offensive in October 1973 should have disposed of any claim that the same advisers were expelled 15 months earlier.
  2. The attempt to reconcile this inconsistency by positing a return of advisers after a rapprochement between Cairo and Moscow (most frequently dated in October 1972), not only reduces the importance of the entire affair to a blip; it also scuttles another prevalent concept in regard of the "expulsion": namely, that it marked the onset of a decisive break between Egypt and the USSR, and hence was one of the United States' greatest achievements during the Cold War.
  3. It also means that the purported reason for President Anwar al-Sadat's expulsion of the Soviets -- Moscow's refusal to provide him with offensive weaponry -- was at most so short-lived as to hardly justify a crisis of major proportions, and was almost immediately resolved by a concession on one or both sides. But even at the time it seemed more likely, as one leading historian concluded shortly after the events, that the story about a Soviet refusal was "a canard" in the first place; to cite only one example, the Soviets not only supplied Scud missiles to Egypt, but actually helped to fire them during the war.
  4. Even at the time, it should have been clear to anyone who monitored the entry of Soviet military personnel into Egypt that the bulk of those who did go home in the summer of '72 could not be advisers, in the sense of individual officers posted to train and oversee Egyptian formations. There were never enough of those to account for anywhere near the number of Soviet servicemen who did leave Egypt following Sadat's announcement. These were mainly the integral Soviet units that were stationed in Egypt as part of Operation Kavkaz during the War of Attrition, comprising an entire aerial defense division, fighter plane squadrons, a detachment of the still-experimental MiG-25 reconnaissance aircraft, electronic warfare outfits, special units and so on; and the withdrawal of these formations was already at the time known to be desired by the Soviet Union, so that their departure was not imposed unilaterally by Egypt.

Thus, both parts of the phrase "expulsion of advisers" were and remain highly misleading misnomers. In both cases, the importance of this distinction goes far beyond mere semantics. Intentionally or otherwise, both of the terms and the concepts they represented had far-reaching implications, and finding out how they became so firmly established is now as important as demonstrating that they never had a real basis in fact.

It was not our original intention to join the already swollen legion of Kissinger-bashers. However, if in our previous studies Mohammed Hassanein Heikal turned out to be a leading culprit for the inculcation of false assertions as axioms of subsequent historiography in respect of the Soviet involvement, in respect of the "expulsion" we found it to be the former US national security adviser and secretary of state, both while still in office and in his retrospective writings.

Indeed, Kissinger appears to have coined the term "expulsion" more than two years before the actual event, as a policy goal. He told his future back-channel partner, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on June 10, 1970 that it was "crucial for us to know whether the Soviet Union would be prepared to withdraw its military forces as part of a negotiated peace." This was not only at the height of the confrontation between US-made Israeli aircraft and Soviet missiles along the Suez Canal; it was also at the peak of the efforts by Kissinger's archrival, Secretary of State William Rogers, to push through a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace plan.

When an answer was not forthcoming, Kissinger made the point to the press two weeks later, in what has been called "a famous indiscretion," and certainly was the opposite of his usual modus operandi. As he wrote in his 1976 memoir, "I took the initiative of challenging the Soviet military presence in Egypt… 'We are trying to expel the Soviet military presence, not so much the advisors, but the combat pilots and the combat personnel.' "

Both the Soviets and the Egyptians not only took notice, but apparently coordinated their response, as within a few months of each other they made almost identical offers to the United States. Each had its own conditions and motives. However, there are several indications that Moscow encouraged Sadat to mend his fences with the Americans, which he began to do in May 1971 -- though in retrospect, he chose the wrong messenger. A declassified tape from the Nixon Oval Office, recently published by Craig Daigle, recorded Rogers as reporting to the President that Sadat had promised him: "If we can work out an interim settlement… I give you my personal assurance that all the Russian ground troops will be out of my country at the end of six months. I will keep Russian pilots to train my pilots because that's the only way my pilots can learn how to fly. But in so far as the bulk of the Russians--the ten or twelve thousand--they will all be out of Egypt within six months." Nixon indeed instructed Rogers to take steps to ensure that end, including a delay of arms deliveries to Israel. For Sadat, this was one immediate payoff for re-establishing some leverage in Washington.

But, by September 1971, the USSR made Nixon an almost identical offer. A newly declassified transcript shows that on his visit to the White House, Gromyko said, on direct instructions from Brezhnev and apparently referring to Kissinger's "indiscretion":

Gromyko: Some time ago you expressed interest of, I don’t know, Egypt, about our presence there -- our military presence.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Gromyko: In a sense we are present there -- in a sense, North of Cairo certain personnel and in connection with a full understanding on the Middle East, we are ready to agree not to have our military units there. We would leave a limited number of advisors for purely advisory purposes

Although it may be tinged with some retrospective apologetics, there is adequate evidence that the Soviets were already seeking a way to withdraw their regular units from Egypt, whose presence there they had never acknowledged (hence Gromyko's hesitation in confirming it). The financial burden of keeping them there was mounting; the ceasefire of August 1970, and its successful violation by moving the Soviet SAM batteries to the canal bank, had largely accomplished their mission; and Moscow too considered a lower profile in Egypt to be politically preferable. Both the Egyptians and the Soviets were thus using the classic negotiating ploy of offering as a concession a move that one intends to make anyway, and trying to extract some concession in return -- in the case of the Soviets, also at the global level.

Unlike Sadat, Gromyko demanded a full understanding about a permanent Middle Eastern solution, not merely an interim settlement. Unlike Rogers, Kissinger -- to whose back channel with Dobrynin this issue was now transferred -- was loath to pursue such a course, both for fear of the domestic electoral cost of the demands it would place on Israel and because he preferred to cast the withdrawal in the general context of detente, which he was building up toward the incipient Moscow summit. Or so Kissinger would have us believe. As to what he actually did with the withdrawal offer, we could so far rely only on his memoirs, which indeed briefly mention Gromyko's proposal, but indicate that Kissinger consigned it to the back burner. The subsequent 700 pages of dense prose mention no further discussion of the proposal, and it resurfaces only when the "expulsion" actually occurs. Even though (as we know now) the withdrawal then materialized in the exact form that Sadat and Gromyko offered – that is, troops repatriated, advisers left in place -- Kissinger professes to have been utterly surprised, and speaks of a unilateral move on the part of Sadat.

He even accuses Brezhnev of “chutzpah” when the Soviet leader wrote to Nixon that Moscow was simply following up on the original offer. If the expulsion had anything to do with the Moscow summit less than two months earlier, it was due (as Kissinger would have us believe) to the Middle East being relegated to one "anodyne" paragraph in the final communique, which supposedly proved conclusively to Sadat that Moscow was not going to support his war plans. In other words, the expulsion was an outcome -- in fact, the most dramatic achievement -- of Kissinger's global detente policy, not of any concession in the same regional arena. Oh yes, in these memoirs Kissinger does mention, in a mere footnote, that he acceded to Gromyko's inexplicable demand by agreeing to some meaningless "general working principles" on the Middle East, of which he then first reveals the written text.

Even such an old Kissinger associate as William Quandt has already cast doubt on the veracity of this version. In 1996, he wrote, delicately enough: "My impression is that Kissinger took the exercise somewhat more seriously, and almost certainly Nixon did. And although written in general terms, the principles did not simply parrot UN resolutions, as Kissinger implies." In plainer English, Quandt thought that Kissinger was not exactly telling the whole truth. But he did not elaborate on what did actually take place.

This has now been done by the newly declassified documents. They indicate no little chutzpah on Kissinger's own part, as the withdrawal offer is now shown to have been under intensive discussion through the back channel up to, and then at, the summit. Kissinger's famous insistence on an open-ended step-by-step approach, and Gromyko's equal insistence on at least the outline of a comprehensive settlement, precluded any agreement until Kissinger's climactic talks in Moscow, in April 1972, when this issue remained the single point of major dispute, or as Kissinger put it "the big unsolved problem." Gromyko, exceptionally, even lapsed into English to stress: "Big, big, twice big … if it is not solved, it might poison the summit."

Kissinger was not about to let his pet project, Detente, be poisoned. As Nixon indicated in his opening talk with the Troika, in which he mentioned the withdrawal offer appreciatively, the Americans arived at the summit with a paper to be reconciled wth a Soviet version. (That he could mention it to Kosygin and Podgorny too indicates that Brezhnev had ensured the entire leadership's support for the withdrawal offer.) Kissinger and Gromyko haggled over it for two lengthy sessions on the final day of the conference, May 29, which ended with an agreement that both of them, but especially Kissinger, considered not anodyne but dynamite -- so explosive that it had to be concealed not only from both the superpowers' clients but even from Rogers.

The concluding words of the part of their talk that was recorded indicates clearly that Kissinger did make some concessions that necessitated secrecy from the Israelis and their US lobby -- notably, agreeing not to challenge the Soviet and Arab contention that Resolution 242 required Israel's withdrawal from the, that is all, the occupied territories. They also specified that the agreement would, besides the written "working principles," include oral understandings, which Kissinger and Gromyko then closeted themselves to finalize. It would be highly surprising if these did not include the troop withdrawal from Egypt, which was the original reason and purpose of the entire exercise. In this instance, Brezhnev may have had a valid point rather than chutzpah.

Kissinger indeed did not inform Israel, professed utter surprise at Sadat's announcement on July 18, and ostentatiously described it as a move volunteered by Sadat with no quid pro quo or Soviet input. But the flurry of talks with Sadat and other Egyptian envoys in Moscow just before the summit and from its conclusion to Sadat's announcement appears to indicate that the Soviets were not that conscienscious about the commitment to secrecy. They also apparently obviate the question whether the USSR was informed by Sadat of his decision on July 8, on July 13, or in June, as various versions so far put it.

So who initiated the Soviet withdrawal, who knew about it in advance, who spread its misleading description as an expulsion of the advisers, and what for? At the time of the occurrences, we only knew what the parties declared openly. Later we were given, through the leaders' memoirs, what they wished posterity to think they did; the example just cited from Kissinger shows what thin ice this is to skate on. We now also know, from the documents, some of what they actually told each other more discreetly. What we still can only guess about is their real motives and intentions.

The three-way (Soviet-Egyptian-American) web of pretenses, double-dealing, ulterior motives, confluences and conflicts of interest that we encountered here is next to impenetrable. It reminded us of nothing so much as a line from the 1980's British-Soviet coproduction Blat, in which the Soviet detective tells his British counterpart (expletive somewhat sanitized): "It's like an orgy in a dark room. Everybody is screwing somebody, but nobody knows who is screwing whom." Since a conclusive light is unlikely to be shone into this dark room anytime soon, we resorted to our usual bottom-up approach: attempting to ascertain what actually occurred on the ground, and inferring from these facts as much as possible about the policies behind them.

For this purpose, our study is based on three main bodies of evidence: Egyptian documents captured by Israel in 1973; memoirs and other publications of the Soviet participants, mainly the military servicemen involved; and the recently declassified British Foreign Office file on the expulsion, which contains a wealth of documentation reflecting what and how the foreign intelligence community in Cairo learned about it.

The most surprising part about the captured Egyptian documents is that so little use has been made of them so far. They were available, in the Israeli military's Hebrew translation, for close to 30 years before the mention of one such document in Dani Asher's recent study called them to our attention. And they should have been sufficient to dispose long ago of the myth that Soviet advisers were thrown out of the Egyptian armed forces in July 1972. Indeed, the document cited by Asher is no less than an annual work plan for the advisers in one Egyptian brigade, begnning in December 1972. When we went for the other documents, they rounded out the picture. In 1973, the number, rank, and function of Soviet advisers with the Egyptian ground forces were virtually identical with those that prevailed before July 1972. (One difference is that their training assignments for 1973 no longer included crossing water obstacles, for which they had trained the Egyptians in previous years; the objective was now attacking fortified emplacements, presumably on the other side.) Since the officers are named and their dates of arrival are given, there is also proof that for some of them, their tours of duty began before and continued after their supposed expulsion, without even the short break that is assumed by the theory of a Soviet-Egyptian reconciliation in October or thereabouts.

This is not to say that nothing at all occurred in respect of these advisers in July. The most extraordinary of the captured documents is the paper detaching all four of the advisers that had been attached to a certain Egyptian brigade plus their interpreter; normally, their rotation would be staggered. It is dated July 16, 1972 -- two days before Sadat's announcement.

The accounts of former Soviet advisers with other units also attest to their mass recall to headquarters in Cairo -- but not to their subsequent repatriation. They tell of a short period of idling, confined to quarters, after which they were once again dispatched on field assignments. Some relate how the Egyptian officers they were now sent to advise responded initially with surprise, but after checking wth their headquarters were reassured that business was back to usual.The high-profile recall to Cairo also included civilian advisers, who were ostensibly not even included in Sadat's order. Such a mass migration could hardly go unnoticed by the various (though extremely limited) sources of Western intelligence, as well as the probably better ones of Israeli intelligence. Just in case, the message was hammered home by Egyptian officials, some of whom (as we now know) posed as informants for foreign services, such as Nasser's son-in law Ashraf Marwan -- recently exposed as the double agent largely responsible for lulling Israel before the October 1973 attrack. As soon as July 22, he told British attache and MI6 operative Alan Urwick, in utter secrecy of course, that all the Soviets were gone from the Egyptian armed forces.

If the advisers were recalled two days before Sadat's announcement, the veterans' accounts show that the Soviet combat pilots were withdrawn even before the Egyptian decision was ostensibly first revealed to the Soviets in early July. The pilots were returned to the Soviet Union in June. Since their MiG-21s bore Egyptian markings and for almost two years they had not engaged in combat with the Israelis, their absence was not quickly noticed. This, however was not the case with the four yet-experimental MiG-25s, which were flown exclusively by top Soviet test pilots and whose reconnaissance sorties over Sinai and Israel proper had continued after the ceasefire. These flights were stopped simultaneously with Sadat's statement, as were the Soviets' Egypt-based aerial activities to monitor NATO forces such as the Sixth Fleet.

The resulting impression that the entire Soviet air presence in Egypt was sent home abruptly in mid-July was a natural, but misleading inference. There is clear evidence that the genuine advisers among the Soviet airmen (those sent to supervise the induction of new Soviet planes and the training of Egyptian pilots to use them) continued their work as planned, and if anything it was expanded and extended to include higher-grade aircraft -- which again contradicts the notion of Soviet refusal to supply the same.

Overall, the result was a consensus not only in the echo chamber of Western operatives in Cairo, but also in Israel, and even in Washington as high up as the secretary of defense, that the Soviet advisers were being expelled for sure, and that maybe some of the regular Soviet personnel would be leaving too. All of the above, of course, had been left out of the Kissinger-Gromyko loop, in which the exact opposite had been arranged. A smokescreen was thus created for the evacuation of the main Soviet expeditionary force -- even though the number of around 15,000 that was commonly estimated for the personnel involved could not be accounted for otherwise, as the genuine advisers did not number half as many.

Numerous references by veterans of the air defense division indicate that they handed over their equipment and positions gradually, over a period of months, to Egyptian servicemen as the latter returned from training in the USSR. But the bulk were indeed evacuated in July and August -- only to be strictly quarantined and then reposted, with no mention being made in their papers about their front-line service. It was to be their bitterness over this obliteration of their sacrifice, and the loss of the benefits to which it entitled them, that caused the wave of protests and publications on these veterans’ part in the late 1980's and 1990's, and thus the exposure of this and other aspects of their mission.

The way in which the entire exercise was conducted appears to support, though not yet to prove conclusively, the theory of a deliberate Egyptian ruse, which gained some prominence in the mid- and late 1970's, based at the time on statements by Sadat and by a leading Egyptian war correspondent. This theory later virtually disappeared from mainstream historiography when Egypt's postwar peace moves, and its shift from the Soviet camp to the American one, turned out not to be a ruse. But in our opinion, this does not necessarily disprove a deliberate deception in Sadat's prewar moves. If creating the false impression that the Soviet advisers were being all expelled, with the concomitant implications as to Soviet support for Egypt’s war plans, was not the original intention, it certainly achieved that outcome, with disastrous results for Israel. The newly available evidence thus conforms with the ruse theory as recast by David Kimche a decade ago -- a deception jointly hatched by Moscow and Cairo, each for its own motives.

But this evidence also points to the US, and specifically at Kissinger, as a partner to the propagation and perpetuation of the misnomer. In each subsequent installment of his writings, Kissinger continued to downplay the Soviet troops and highlight the advisers; to downplay the Middle Eastern bargain and to highlight the Detente context. By 1994, his last version became: "In 1972 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat dismissed all his Soviet military advisors and asked Soviet technicians to leave the country."