Soviet Intervention 1967:
Fateful Decisions

The immediate spark of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors appears to have been a May 1967 warning from the Soviet Union to the Egyptians regarding a non-existent buildup of Israeli forces on the Syrian border. It seems likely that the Soviets believed their information to be true, though it’s been claimed repeatedly over the last fifty years that the Soviets intended to provoke a war they knew the Arabs would lose, and likely lose very badly, therefore binding them more closely to the Soviet bloc.

What is clear is that the Soviets informed the Syrians that they would not, under any circumstances, intervene in an upcoming war with their own forces. Whether they or the Syrians told this to the Egyptians is not clear. Even so, tales of possible Soviet intervention have circulated for fifty years, including a former Soviet sailor’s improbable tale of untrained seamen being tasked with landing in the middle of Haifa harbor armed with AK47s and some improvised hand grenades

Strong arguments stood for the Soviet Union remaining aloof from the struggle. For one, armed intervention could bring direct conflict with the United States, though the American-Israeli bond was not yet as strong as it would become after the Six-Day War. For another, the Soviets were beginning to downgrade their assessment of the Arab states’ military capabilities. While the Soviet Union had supplied copious amounts of weaponry, Israel maintained a massive edge in numbers, firepower, training, morale and leadership. Disquieting reports noted that new Syrian Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad had removed over 400 officers from service: both those considered disloyal to the Ba’ath regime and those considered capable enough to mount a coup no matter what their political leanings. The Israelis would be unlikely to attempt conquest of their enemies’ capitals, and short of taking over the fighting themselves the Soviets could not shore up the Arab armies enough to make a difference.

In the improbable case of an Arab victory, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser would emerge as the undisputed leader of the Arab world. The Soviets intended to dominate the Arabs, not provide them with their own power center. It would better advance their position to allow their clients to be defeated.

One strong point remained in favor of intervention. Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Center in the desert just southeast of Dimona produced its first nuclear weapon in late 1966 or early 1967; by May the Israelis reportedly possessed two such warheads. Lurid tales of Soviet plans to destroy the Dimona site during the course of the Six-Day War have circulated for decades, but these seem to have little foundation beyond old veterans peddling memoirs.

Even so, the Soviets were aware of the Israeli nuclear program, and would not have grieved at its destruction. Had the Soviets placed actual troops on the ground, it would have been to destroy the Dimona facility rather than prop up their Arab clients.

Actual Soviet intervention would not have taken the form of a haphazard landing by angry sailors, but a landing operation by crack airborne forces. The massive Exercise Dnepr, conducted in September and October 1967, gives what’s probably a pretty good model of how such an operation would have been carried out, likely using Egyptian air bases to stage the Soviet aircraft and troops.

In the Soviet exercise, two guards airborne divisions – the 76th and 103rd – led the way in an assault over the Dnepr, establishing landing zones far in the “enemy” rear as part of a phased landing operation. The first step involved a parachute landing by an airborne infantry battalion to secure the drop zones and immediate objectives. A further wave of parachute infantry reinforced them. Finally a “heavy” wave brought the divisions’ artillery and vehicles, using newly-developed rocket-assisted parachute platforms to break the fall of the heftier items. Very rapidly, the airborne divisions gathered themselves into well-balanced forces able to defend themselves with organic artillery and anti-tank assets; new air-droppable armored infantry fighting vehicles would soon transform them into highly mobile mechanized forces but in 1967 they remained primarily light infantry.

On a tactical level, the Soviet Army now preached the use of helicopters for shorter-ranged airborne operations such as river crossings. A landing in the Negev Desert would have been most definitely a strategic operation calling for parachute forces, and well outside the range of even the big transport helicopters produced by the Moscow Helicopter Works in the 1960’s.

The movement of hundreds of aircraft to Egypt could not have been hidden from the United States. Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito granted the Soviets overflight permission in late May 1967 to support the Arabs, but even so the transport operation alone would have touched off a diplomatic incident at the very least. President Lyndon Johnson would have then had to choose whether to deploy the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s air power to assist Israel.

An A-4 Skyhawk of VA216 aboard Saratoga, May 1967.

Johnson and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, had discussed the possibility of Soviet intervention in an Arab-Israeli conflict and believed it unlikely. If the Soviets did use force to support the Arabs, American military and intelligence assessments concluded that it would be to defend the Syrian capital of Damascus and would take the form of an airborne landing. Two American supercarriers, Saratoga and America, moved into the Sea of Crete in late May in case of such an eventuality – the potential battlefields lay within about 20 minutes’ flight time from the carrier decks, and the planes were expected to land, refuel and re-arm at Israeli airfields.

The two carrier air groups would provide the bulk of the American response, but Johnson had other assets on which he could call. An amphibious task force with 2,000 Marines was also present with the Sixth Fleet. A smaller carrier, the Essex-class Intrepid, had just transited the Suez Canal on her way to Vietnam and could have been quickly recalled. In addition, the Royal Navy had held the carrier Victorious at Malta to await developments and had the carrier Hermes steaming in the Red Sea. The usual Soviet “tattletales” trailed the American carriers, but the other units of the Black Sea Fleet deployed in the Mediterranean did not take up a hostile posture.

As Israeli troops pushed toward Damascus, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin warned the Americans that the Soviets would not allow the Syrian capital to fall. In response, Johnson ordered the Sixth Fleet carriers to approach the Syrian coast – a purely diplomatic threat, as they already could strike any target they wished with ease from their positions in Greek waters. But the American president had no desire to use them. Defending Israel was one thing; supporting an Israeli war of conquest – particularly coming hours after Israeli planes killed 34 American sailors aboard the intelligence-gathering ship USS Liberty – another. Johnson pressured the Israelis to accept a cease-fire, which went into effect two days after the opening of their offensive against Syria.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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