September 22, 2014

1968. Soviet Expansionism in the Middle East

The Cold War Power Balance in the Mediterranean
"Units of the U.S. Navy Sixth Fleet underway in the Mediterranean Sea, in 1955. Visible are three aircraft carriers, three cruisers, 13 destroyers and an oiler" (source)

Bill Downs 

Information Perspective

Sunday, January 7, 1968

While most of the country is naturally preoccupied with the mysterious diplomatic play underway in Southeast Asia, here in Washington there are many top officials who are concentrating on another international ball game—one which some consider more of a long-range threat to the tranquility of the world, even more than the Vietnam War.

It's the never-ending struggle that has persisted for centuries around what has been called the fulcrum of our civilization: the Middle East.

The latest inning of this most complex contest is ironically symbolized during these opening weeks of 1968 by two men who are making diplomatic field trips—a pair of visits which may vitally affect the balance of world power in that most crucial Mid-East area. That area where three countries are joined, and a dozen religions collide. And where legend says that Adam and Eve were expelled from an Eden whose peace and perfection mankind has never been able to recapture.

The visit of Israel's Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to the United States to confer with President Johnson just happens to coincide with the state visit of Soviet Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev to Cairo. In these two examples of traveling diplomacy lay the crux of a new—or renewal—of yet another Middle East crisis which now appears to be about as inevitable as a Russian nyet.

Officially, neither the United States nor the USSR were directly involved in last June's Middle East war in which the Israeli military forces achieved their fantastic victory over the combined Arab armies in what's been called a Blitzkrieg.

But indirectly and geopolitically, America and Russia were indeed very much involved in that six day desert conflict. A token number of US tanks, planes, and guns were involved in the Israeli victory—and, conversely, in the defeat of Jordan's army.

But the collapse of the Egyptian armed forces and the rout of Syria's troops made the Soviet Union the big international loser of the war. Moscow had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in armaments to buy herself a foothold in the Middle East.

In fact, in the weeks that followed the stunning Israeli victory, there were grumblings from Damascus and Cairo and other Arab capitals that the Russians had somehow let their Arab allies down by not coming to their side against the hard-driving Israelis.

And there was much speculation here in Washington and other Western capitals that the Soviet Union had suffered a setback to its Middle East ambitions so severe that perhaps it would be decades before she could re-establish her influence in the area.

As it turned out, such assessments were 100% wrong.

Part of the reason lies in the history of Russia dating back to Peter the Great. For centuries, the Kremlin has wanted warm water ports, and particularly free and open access to the Mediterranean and Indian oceans.

In fact, during the reprehensible negotiations between the German Nazis and the Stalin regime in 1940, one of the Soviet's secret conditions for collaboration with Adolf Hitler was that the Nazis recognize the area south of Soviet Georgia, Armenia, and the Caspian Sea as within Moscow's sphere of influence and "the center of aspirations of the Soviet Union."

Over the past dozen years, when Egyptian strong-man Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to play the East against the West in his futile attempts to dominate the Arab world, it was the Russians who were glad to play the game, spending something like a billion dollars to finance the Aswan Dam on the Nile—and hundreds of millions of other dollars in military aid to bolster the Arab armies around the Mediterranean crescent. This left the United States as the balancer of power, providing matching arms to such friendly governments as Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

But then came the Six Day War and the Israeli victory which wiped out much of Russia's military investment. For a while it appeared that Moscow was disgusted with their hapless Moslem allies, but then it became evident that the leaders in the Kremlin had not forgotten their history and their geopolitics.

Despite the overwhelming defeat of Russian-supplied arms, a Soviet foot-hold in the Middle East was still essential to Moscow's long-range goals. And with the Arab nations smarting from defeat and humiliation, they could only turn to the USSR for help to restore their shattered fortunes. Only this time, Moscow would call the tune, train the officers, and manage the strategy.

According to some intelligence reports, the Soviets now—only some seven months after Israel's devastating victory—have replaced between 80 and 90 per cent of the military hardware that Egypt and Syria lost in the Six Day War. And this includes some 225 new MiG jet fighters supplied to the Egyptian air force, another 125 MiGs assigned to Syria, and 150 to Iraq. And estimated three to five thousand Russian advisers and technicians are said to be in Egypt alone teaching Nasser's forces how to use the new arms.

That's why the visit to Cairo this week by Russia's Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev will get the closest scrutiny. Officially Brezhnev is making the trip to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the Aswan Dam. But more likely his Cairo trip is more like that of a Kremlin tsar visiting an important province, which Egypt now may become in the expanding Soviet power thrust into the Middle East.

By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's talks with President Johnson will necessarily have a different tone. The Jerusalem government is not very happy with America's foot-dragging policies during and after Israel's blitz victory. Particularly, some Israeli officials feel that Washington failed to move decisively to force the defeated Arab nations to diplomatic negotiations for a general Middle East detente when the time was on the rise.

American attempts to play the honest broker in the Mid-East has satisfied neither the Israelis nor the Arabs. But in the end, it is a political fact of life in the US that public sympathy is with Israel. And likewise, in the final analysis, Prime Minister Eshkol knows that he must turn to the United States for both moral and material aid if his beach-head nation is to survive its self-declared enemies. Consequently, the Israeli leader will be asking for new super-sonic fighter planes to match the air power which the Russians are supplying the Arabs—and more important, for renewed American assurances that the US and her NATO allies are interested in preserving the peace of the Middle East.

Thus we have the Arab evidence that the Soviet Union is intent on becoming a major power in the Middle East.

There are other and even more startling facts indicating that the Russian goal may be near achievement. Up until about five years ago, the entire Mediterranean was regarded as a Western lake under the military umbrella of the North Atlantic alliance and the stewardship of the US Sixth Fleet. At that time, there were no more than a half-dozen Soviet naval vessels in those waters. A year ago there were perhaps ten or twelve Russian warships in the Mediterranean.

But following the Arab-Israeli War, the Kremlin high command made another decision, and today there is a Soviet fleet of forty to fifty Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean. They include a fifteen thousand ton guided missile cruiser and three other heavy cruisers; at least a half-dozen missile-armed destroyers; an estimated twelve submarines, at least two of them nuclear-powered; and perhaps fifteen modern supply ships which serve the Soviet fleet as floating bases. The Communist flotilla also is said to include a number of amphibious landing craft, presumably with specially trained troops aboard like the US Marines.

The Russian sea force in the Mediterranean is not believed to possess the striking power of the sixty American warships which make up the Sixth Fleet, and in particular the Soviets have nothing to match the two giant US aircraft carriers and the Polaris submarines which normally complement the fleet.

But the appearance of the Soviet warships in the Mediterranean prove that Russia has again become a major sea power.

Couple this with Moscow's military re-supply of the Arab nations and it's easy to conclude that a new Middle East crisis is in the making—a crisis that this time might precipitate a direct confrontation of the Russian and American navies.

It may not come this year or next. Or perhaps it can be avoided. But in the Middle East—as in Southeast Asia—the name of the game continues to be raw military power. And like it or not, we can play it no other way.

This is Bill Downs reporting from Washington.