How fake news becomes fake history

Sadat’s ‘Expulsion of the Soviet Advisers,’ July 18, 1972

Anwar Sadat & Begin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anwar Sadat & Begin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Next Tuesday (July 18) marks the 45th anniversary of an extraordinary event in Middle Eastern, indeed global, annals – or rather, an exemplary case of deception that should serve as a cautionary tale and object lesson for practitioners and students alike.
Open any history book and you’ll read that on this date in 1972, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat stunned the world by announcing the expulsion of the Soviet advisers (or experts, or technicians) that had been assisting his armed forces. They are usually described as all the Soviet personnel in Egypt, and their number is given at 15,000. Their “ouster” is attributed to the détente process between the Soviet Union and the United States, which climaxed at the Moscow summit meeting of May 1972.
As part of a global understanding, the USSR denied Sadat the offensive weaponry and political backing he needed to launch an offensive across the Suez Canal for the recapture of Sinai, which Israel had held since the Six Day War in 1967. The resulting rift, which heralded Sadat’s shift from the Soviet to the American camp, is considered one of the greatest US achievements in the Cold War, and is credited mainly to the architect of détente, US statesman Henry Kissinger. All this has become all but axiomatic: most works don’t bother to provide references.
There’s just one minor problem with this universally accepted account: it never happened. It’s among the conventional concepts that are challenged in our new book The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973 (Hurst/Oxford University Press).
The “expulsion” story should have been suspect even at the time: the number of Soviet advisers – individual officers attached to Egyptian formations – never approached even a third of 15,000. It should have been definitively discredited when, just before the Egyptian offensive was unleashed on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, the USSR evacuated the dependents of the same advisers who had ostensibly been banished already.
And yet the canard persists. How it was inculcated is as intriguing as the actual doings of the Soviets in Egypt before and after Sadat’s gesture.
Thousands of Soviet servicemen did leave Egypt in the summer and autumn of 1972. But they weren’t advisers; they were regular soldiers of integral Soviet formations, mainly an entire air defense division, which had been dispatched at the height of the War of Attrition in 1969-70. One famous Israeli victory over this Soviet expeditionary force – the downing of four Soviet MiG- 21s in a dogfight on July 30, 1970 – is justly highlighted in the Israel Air Force’s battle heritage. But the Soviets’ surface-to air missiles (SAMs) took such a toll on the IAF’s aircraft, and especially on their irreplaceable crews, that Israel was compelled to accept a cease-fire on August 7. Worse, neither Israel nor the US could prevent the Soviets and Egyptians from immediately violating the cease-fire by advancing the missiles to the canal bank, creating the essential air cover for the ultimate crossing.
So the Soviet regulars’ mission was accomplished, and both Moscow and Cairo sought to send them home as Egyptian manpower completed training in the USSR and returned to replace them. In a classic negotiating tactic, this was presented to Washington as a concession, for which a quid-pro-quo was expected (lesson #1: beware offers that look too good). Kissinger, then US national security adviser, was the perfect mark. Despite the trust he thought he had built with the Soviets through “back-channel” talks, they had blindsided him with their deployment in Egypt (lesson #2: personal relations are trumped by national interests; pun intended).
A furious Kissinger publicly declared the Soviets’ “expulsion” as a policy goal, and they now seemed to be granting it. After almost a year of wrangling, this was the last agreement reached at the Moscow summit. Loath to endanger other benefits of détente, Kissinger conceded some major points (lesson #3: never consider our arena in isolation from others). Among these, he accepted the Soviet reading of UN Security Council Resolution 242 as calling for Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories. But Kissinger was “terrified” of the political consequences if Israel or its US supporters found out about this – so Israel was kept out of the loop.
The Soviet regulars, then, weren’t abruptly and unilaterally kicked out of Egypt, but amicably repatriated. Because the USSR had never officially confirmed their presence, they could only be referred to as “advisers.” There was no Soviet-Egyptian rift, because Egypt did receive all the weapons it desired, and the genuine Soviet advisers remained; there was full Soviet support of – indeed, direct participation in – the Yom Kippur offensive.
These are not mere academic, retrospective niceties. The belief that Egypt, shorn of Soviet weapons and backing, could not possibly go to war was cemented by the “expulsion” and hardened into Israel’s notorious “Concept,” which led to its disastrous unpreparedness on October 6, 1973. Even after field observations detected preparations for an Egyptian canal crossing, the top Israeli echelon could not connect the dots until it was too late, preferring their theoretical model over “their lying eyes” (lesson #4: don’t).
How did the Egyptians and Soviets pull off this deception, against an Israeli intelligence community that was rated among the world’s finest? For debunking the “expulsion” lie, we had several mutually confirming bodies of evidence.
Our research first introduced into Western scholarship the memoirs of the Soviet veterans who served in Egypt. Of their numerous testimonies, we can mention here the Soviet air force officer who came to Egypt to induct the newly supplied Sukhoi-17 attack bombers – one of the key offensive weapons that Sadat was supposedly refused. This officer’s group came before the “expulsion”; their mission was not only continued afterward, but was actually extended (reporting to the Egyptian Air Force commander, a Russian-speaking Soviet trainee named Hosni Mubarak).
The veterans’ accounts were corroborated by Egyptian documents that were captured by the IDF in “Africa” after the Israeli counter-crossing of the canal turned the tide of the Yom Kippur War. Both show that two days before Sadat’s dramatic statement, all the Soviet advisers with Egyptian field units were ordered to report to headquarters in Cairo. The advisers – in land formations, the standard was five of them, plus an interpreter, per Egyptian brigade – were normally rotated one by one to ensure continuity.
The sudden, massive influx of advisers into the capital could not but be noticed by such observers as military attaches of Western embassies, who routinely doubled as intelligence station chiefs. They pooled their limited and often planted information, which created a mutually reinforcing echo chamber (lesson #5: if a picture is too perfect, suspect it).
To drive the message home, the Egyptians deployed “the Cairo chattering class” of “informed sources.” The British attaché/MI6 agent excitedly reported on July 22 – four days after Sadat’s announcement – that he was told there were no longer any Soviets in Egypt at all. To bolster the credibility of such a prodigious logistical feat (actually, not even the first of the Soviet regulars had left yet), the Briton’s source added a promise that Egypt would now revert from Soviet to British weapons – which caused rejoicing in London but never materialized. The super-secret source was Ashraf Marwan, a top aide to Sadat and the son-in-law of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. No wonder – lesson #6 – that in an interminable Israeli debate, we side with the faction which holds that Marwan was a brilliant double agent rather than the Mossad’s best-ever spy. Directly or through such interested Western parties (including, most prominently, Kissinger and his memoirs), the “expulsion” became firmly established in the press – and thence in the history books.
But after a few weeks of idling in Cairo, the Soviet advisers percolated singly and imperceptibly back to “their” Egyptian units. Their work plans and reports show they had already rehearsed “combat crossing of a water obstacle.”
The topic to be drilled in 1973 was “storming fortifications on the far side”: the strong points of Israel’s Bar-Lev Line, which – due in large part to the “expulsion” ruse – would be woefully unprepared on Yom Kippur.
Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez are associate fellows of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.